When the clocks chimed 2008, the world was on fire.
My husband and I were sitting on our traditional spot on the lime green couch, leaning over the back cushions to peer out the front window. After kissing each other into the New Year, we stuck our heads back out behind the curtains. While firecrackers popped and the baby in my belly kicked frantically, three bonfires burned on sidewalks within sight – one down the street, one kitty corner from our porch and one reflected in store window a few yards away. People kept walking up to the closest blaze, throwing in pieces of cardboard or cloth. The following morning, we found the charred skeleton of bike, all that remained of a holiday pyre.
We heard, later on, that the entire country had been in flames. Hundreds of cars and twenty-two schools had been torched throughout the Netherlands on New Year’s Eve. After living in this neighborhood a couple years, we’ve grown accustomed to the trash that greets the first day of every year: remnants of rockets, sparkler wires and red paper bits piled up like snow. This year, we drove a few blocks further and saw our first burned-out car.
Incensed, Prime Minister Balkenende addressed the vandalism at his first press conference of the year. His tone was harsh and chastising, speaking with the free authority of an angry father. Feeling reprimanded by his words for merely living in a country capable of such barbarism, my mind drew comparisons to civil unrest in other European cities. Was anyone else drawing the all-too-obvious connection to those fires in the Parisian Banlieu?
Perhaps the French fires had set a precedent for our Dutch delinquents. But there is one distinction wary to be lost in hasty assumptions. The prevalent, xenophobic rhetoric of LPF, Verdonk and Wilders sympathizers makes it easy to label uncivilized behavior in the Netherlands as a purely ethnic problem. But the young, restless, working class constituency who’d set fire to Dutch cars and schools did not derive from an exclusively immigrant-based population.
I’d learned early on that this was a problem bound with class – a malaise warranting association with economic standing, not ethnic origin.
It had been the summer of 2006. The Dutch were playing Portugal in their first and final match in the Round of Sixteen in the World Cup. Friends had invited us over to their place for dinner. It had rained that Sunday, so we’d opted to stay dry and took the car instead of bikes to their neighborhood a few miles away.
Before moving to the Hague a year before, I had viewed flats in their part of the city, an infamous quarter known for drug trafficking, assault and an internationally publicized arrest during the “anti-Muslim terror” raids of November 2004. In both the pre- and post 9/11 universe, this area of the otherwise sophisticated Dutch seat of government was associated with many negative stereotypes linked to ethnic minority groups in the Netherlands. These stereotypes were one cause for underlying tension between white and immigrant Dutch. The populist rise and fatal fall of the political trailblazer Pim Fortuyn, who’d won fans by voicing taboo opinions about ethnic minorities, had broken open a Pandora’s box of unprecedented public debate.
Though we had known little about residential life in the Hague, my husband, a Dutch native, had heard enough about this part of the city on the evening news to know it had a bad reputation. His aunt and uncle, business- and homeowners on the other side of the city, had also warned against moving to such “darker” neighborhoods.
I, naive at the time, had not understood what they meant. I lost the comment in the muddled, bilingual haze that sometimes hits a non-native speaker in group conversations. In a fleeting moment of ingenuous logic, I remembered absently assuming it was a metaphor rooted in some departed association with streetlights. All bad neighborhoods are dangerous to pass through at night, because they’re badly lit; lights in bad neighborhoods are always scarce because they’re frequently vandalized or unaffordable.
“Dark,” as it were, was a categorical distinction for race. In the brief time I’ve been acquainted with Dutch language and culture, I still haven’t figured out if people who use this terminology are referring to hair or skin color. Dark hair has donned many an “indigenous” Dutch head, especially those with ancestry in France, Spain, or Italy. But the “dark” people referred to here usually have darker skin tones as well. The distinction in question refers, really, to the cultural void separating the quintessential blond and blue-eyed Dutch individual from the Dutch resident who looks, sounds, or acts like they are from somewhere else.
As we found our way that night among narrow, wet streets, I pulled open the map and placed it in my lap, assuming traditional navigator duty. I saw that our friends’ street, which my husband had circled and marked in blue, was surrounded by other streets circled and marked in pink by me, a year earlier. I watched the scenery grow familiar. After a few turns into a two-way street only wide enough for one car, I realized I had been here before. “This was where the realtor stood me up because she’d rented the place to someone else.” My husband grunted in return, preoccupied with the row of cars waiting to drive past us in the opposite direction.
As I glanced at the pretty brick patios, thinking back to that day the year before, I remembered walking away from the no-show appointment and finding myself on the main road we had just left. I had passed a drunk, quickening my pace under a covered alley way, hoping he wouldn’t approach me. Trash had littered the sidewalks. Instead of catching my tram back, I’d decided to walk across the main road and explore more of the residential area. Most of the apartments we could afford tended to be situated in the vicinity. I wanted to see for myself if the rest of this neighborhood was as bad as its reputation. The street with the rented apartment had been quite nice, inebriated vagrants aside. What if we’d find another ad for a place nearby? It would be good to have a general idea beforehand, it might save a trip.
After only a few minutes of wandering, though, I had made up my mind. In the tram back to the train station, I wrote “NO – NO – NO” along the corresponding streets on the map. As a student, I had done time in bad areas of other cities in two other countries. I summed these Dutch surroundings up based on my experience. I judged the area on the upkeep of the streets and buildings, the things being sold in the shops, the way people – “dark” and not – had nothing better to do at two in the afternoon than hang around street corners or lean on their cars and gape.
That evening at home, I’d showed my husband the map, pointing out the street where the realtor didn’t show. I said it looked like a really nice little place in itself, but that it was in a general area I wouldn’t feel thrilled about settling in. I told him about my spontaneous exploration and he traced his finger across the map, reading aloud my chain of “NO.” Pointing out the street where I had decided to catch the tram, he said that the Anti-Terrorism Raid of the last Dutch century had occurred right here. I had to laugh. You’ve got to be kidding, I said. Nope, he answered, this whole area had been evacuated and blocked off with police, bomb squad, and camera crew.
Having recognized the streets we were now squeezing through in the rain, I had no trouble orienting myself and telling him where to go. We were still a few blocks away from the address, but he parked at an open spot, accustomed to the lack of space around our apartment another world away. I grumbled about having to get out and walk in the rain, but I was actually more worried about finding our way back here in the dark. As we scurried across a small square, dodging broken glass and dog feces, I muttered something about parking in Egypt and hoping we wouldn’t get mugged when the game was over.
My husband stopped at a corner, looking at a street sign bolted to a large brick building. What street do they live on again, I asked. He said it out loud, moving his gaze in a half circle, wondering in what direction we’d be likely to find it. A kid in a bomber jacket with slick black hair, big brown eyes and an accent stopped and asked us where we needed to be. We repeated the name, and he told us to walk about a hundred yards on and turn right, it would be on our right. We thanked him and he walked on.
I half expected him to ask something of us in return. He didn’t. He just walked on.
My feet moved forward, but my mind trailed behind, dumbstruck by the brief encounter. I had rarely been asked by any individual in the Netherlands, much less one of Turkish, Moroccan, or other immigrant descent, if I needed help finding my way. I think that once, years ago in Amsterdam, a very friendly little old white lady had seen me studying the map at a bus stop and asked if I was lost.
Yet it was also stupefying to find myself in midst a spontaneous mixing of the Native and the Other, with no negative consequence whatsoever. I had never, personally, had any bad experiences with those minorities collectively associated in the Netherlands as that “problem” from elsewhere. Maybe it was because I looked like them myself, being a “dark” mix between Japanese and Armenian.
On the other hand, I regularly witnessed the way immigrant youth deliberately defy authority, upsetting the tranquil balance of a tram interior by blasting loud music on their cell phones, smoking cigarettes in the back, getting in my husband’s face when he speaks up and tells them to can it. I had bought into such precedent and other people’s prejudice, never expecting interaction across the void to be so unwarranted and harmless.
We found the apartment in a gorgeous little cul-de-sac, and our host opened the door with an outstretched arm. He welcomed us ceremoniously – not to the house, but to the infamous neighborhood it was situated in. After we were ushered in and asked our choice of drink, his wife, a new acquaintance of mine, emerged from fondue preparation with glasses and a corkscrew. The first few minutes of our settling into sofas and wine were occupied by the story of how they came to live there and how we had narrowly missed it.
I had only known her a few months, but my new friend had already complained to me about the neighborhood, glad to be moving in a few weeks’ time. She said we should be thankful the apartment around the corner in that narrow street with the pretty porches hadn’t worked out. She had told me before and repeated tonight that the neighbors were hard to live with. Her husband was more subdued in his criticism, but gave an example of what she meant: Guys would often sit around outside drinking beer and verbally harass the women who walked by.
I heard these last words and understood exactly what he was talking about because it had recently happened to me around the corner from our own flat. The previous week I had walked past a group of young Dutch men, looking like the kind of fair-haired kids my husband would have gone to high school with in his village. One of them offered a comment about my being “butt-ugly.” When I told him to go where the sun don’t shine, he gave away the root of his problem with my appearance: “Oh, and you speak Dutch, as well!”
My silent concurrence was suddenly jolted by a bump in logic. The scenario of my own experience, which I had been so quick to associate with the current conversation, did not fit into my picture of this notorious neighborhood. I wondered how I’d clarify without stepping on politically correct toes. I decided to throw caution to the wind. The Dutch are known for being blunt, so why shouldn’t I be blunt, too?
“Who lives here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what kind of neighbors are you talking about? We just ran into a Turkish kid on our way over here who helped us find your street.”
My husband corrected. “He was Moroccan, not Turkish.”
“Okay, Moroccan. Are your neighbors Moroccan, Turkish, white?”
The couple managed to give me a politically correct answer, after all. The people living here were “Hagenees.” This was the Dutch word for a native resident to the Hague and synonymous with white, thus.
Like a sleuth, I had narrowly circumvented my own assumed logic – based on what I’d been told about bad Dutch areas – and uncovered a contrary fact by means of deduction. Despite its “dark” reputation, the ‘hood wasn’t necessarily bad because of minority ethnic groups. In fact, this truth rang true when compared with my own experience. While living in Turkish neighborhoods in Berlin or shopping at mosques in Amsterdam, I’d never been verbally harassed by any group of males. I had passed plenty hanging around in groups outside, but never had to put up with abuse. I didn’t know if this practice of public chastising was excluded from their cultural norms, or if I just wasn’t included in their sphere of interest. It didn’t really matter why; all that mattered to me was that contrary to common stereotyping, I felt safe walking by these groups of ethnic minority males. In both Germany and the Netherlands, however, I could usually count on being harassed by their white counterparts.
Our host went on to explain how a female resident had been driven right out of her apartment two doors away. I asked how, and she explained that this woman had been threatened and verbally accosted. Snow had been thrown onto the face of her house until it made a layer several inches thick. I asked who had been responsible, to which she answered, the neighborhood kids. I pictured blond and blue eyed Dutch children, packing snow balls and throwing them while yelling things they’d heard their parents say over the dinner table. I asked my host why they’d done this, and she said, “Because she was single. You’re not welcome here if you’re a woman living by yourself. You belong with a man, at the very least, if not with your husband and kids.”
A postmodern witch hunt, I thought to myself, marveling that this type of thing was going on in a country I had once generalized to be socially progressive. I had since moved beyond the average American who bases their perspective of the Dutch on gay unions, legalized prostitution, and euthanasia. I didn’t use this to write off the lot of them, however. I knew there were Dutch who didn’t buy into stereotypes, Leave-It-To-Beaver gender divisions or mass xenophobia, because I’d found my few friends among them. Above all, I knew that primitive, socially abhorrent standards were prevalent in every culture and in multifarious forms, from subtle differences in salary to blatant hate crimes. Bad behavior was not endemic to geography – and as made obvious by the residents of this infamous neighborhood, not particular to ethnic origin.
The Dutch team lost that summer night. We had held on to every last hope, believing that by some fluke of divergent national practice, the team of Orange would pull a surprise shot out of their silky soccer shorts and score within the last few minutes of overtime. I felt miserable, mourning for all the crazy fans who invested so much hope every Cup. Our neighborhoods were covered in flags, team photos and orange banners. Our supermarkets were selling orange beer and Heineken hats that looked like Bavarian mountaineer caps, pulling out into covert megaphones. I couldn’t believe it was over.
As my husband and I got up to leave, he made a passing joke about the riots that were probably breaking out on disappointed Dutch streets. To my consternation, our hosts assured us we would get home just fine, because they’d already seen the riot police positioning themselves this afternoon.
Despite the collective sorrow which infused the lay of the Low Lands that night, we made it back unharmed. We passed people tumbling out of their front doors, yelling obscenities or letting off hand-held sirens. Some began pulling down the orange streamers hanging from the lampposts. As we turned out of our friends’ cul-de-sac, I passed one living room window filled with Hagenees, comatose on the couch and the floor, looking like the television had broken up with them.
Turning the last time into the street near the square where we’d been helped earlier, I noticed an orange glow on the sidewalk ahead. Approaching, we saw that it was a makeshift bonfire of burning plastic. A corpulent white woman walked out of the nearest house, tossing more orange banners and flags onto the pile. Her disproportionately small arm flung flaps of flimsy paper onto the crackling heap, and she spat out a torrent of fowl language, likening the Dutch team to a female genital organ.
At the square again, I saw the kid who had given us directions standing with a group of guys in the distance. Two black women were hovering in the open door of a house to our left, one of them talking into a cell phone. We hopped into the car and began ambling our way back, peering ahead through light rain and windshield wipers.
As I reached for my seatbelt, my husband told me to stay calm, no matter what might happen in the few miles between here and home. What do you mean, I asked. He said, well, you know, with the riot police and all. I told him I wasn’t worried about them, I was just glad we’d found the car. We emerged onto the main road that lay between our friends’ flat and the historical site in the Hague’s war on terror. Parked tanks, vans, and motorcycles lined both sides of the street, encamped behind rows of riot-geared agents. Other non-uniformed individuals directed traffic in orange security vests, reflective tape flashing across their chests and their flashlights waving to and fro. Dutch streets were rarely so busy on a Sunday night. Despite the devastating loss, people who had watched the game elsewhere weren’t wasting time bawling in front of their friends’ tubes. We eased into the swiftly moving current of practical fans, filling the city streets to find their way home.
Copyright © 2008 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.