Big in the Netherlands

Dutch Authors of Moroccan Origin

Authors of Moroccan origin are the latest craze in the Netherlands. Their approach to Dutch language and society is fresh and original. Ilja Braun introduces us to two quite different of these authors – Hafid Bouazza and Abdelkader Benali

Authors of Moroccan origin are the latest craze in the Netherlands. Some of their works have been translated into German. Ilja Braun introduces us to two of these authors


Cover of the English Issue of Abdelkar Benali's "Wedding by the Sea"

​​It’s a long, long time ago but that doesn’t alter the fact that the Dutch author Hafid Bouazza spent the first seven years of his life in Morocco. These seven years, however, were enough to ensure that the author now has what is currently a highly promotional image in the Netherlands. Some feature writers are of the opinion that immigrant authors have not only a less biased and more objective view of Dutch society and reality of life than their native colleagues, but also a broader horizon.

Moreover, they suspect that these writers are suffering from an exemplary inner conflict that comes from the fact that they are living ‘between two cultures’: a state of mind that is not unlike the current Zeitgeist. Such authors are welcome guests at readings on issues like ‘Islam and homosexuality’, which took place in Amsterdam in September 2002.

At this reading, Hafid Bouazza claimed that ‘the fanaticism with which the Dutch try to understand “the Muslims”, is starting to take on threatening proportions.’ He went on to say that every criticism of Islam is rejected as ignorance. ‘The only way in which Islam has enriched the Netherlands is with the architectural splendour of its mosques and, in the Netherlands, these mosques are hideous monstrosities.’

Multicultural cosiness and smooching


Cover of the Dutch Issue of "Abdullah's Feet" by Hafid Bouazza

​​The controversy unleashed by this statement took a public accustomed to multicultural cosiness and smooching completely by surprise. However, for those familiar with the daily parading of Dutch-Moroccan authors as evidence of decorative tolerance, it is easier to understand the ferocity of Bouazza’s statement.

‘Regardless of the issue you choose as an author, as soon as you write about it in a language that is not your mother tongue, it is immediately viewed as a wilful deviation from the ”real” issue,’ Bouazza once wrote in an essay. The reality is that most of these authors – often children of immigrant workers who came to the Netherlands in the 1960s – have extremely close bonds with the Netherlands and hardly any links with the country in which they were born.

Hafid Bouazza, for example, has immersed himself in the Dutch language like very few of his Dutch counterparts. For his novel Momo, he made extensive use of a historic dictionary of archaic words that are no longer in everyday use. He also played with fragments from other languages and created new words. Ironically, the novel’s complex and extremely dense language – which in its own way is highly accurate – appears strange and exotic.

Benali wins Libris Literature Prize

Other authors of Moroccan origin have less of a problem being pigeon-holed as immigrant writers. Abdelkader Benali, for example, whose books are published in German by Piper Verlag, deals with the culture of the country in which he was born with irony and humour.

‘The Koranic school was a series of class rooms hidden away in the basement of a mosque, which once upon a time, a long, long time ago – before contraception, Thalidomide babies and the mass redundancies of non-believers who consequently rediscovered their religion – had been a church.’ This is the opening of Benali’s description of religion classes in his novel Wedding at the Sea.

The book is light-footed and playful and the author indulges in appreciative, extensive digressions in what is essentially a very straightforward plot: a groom fails to turn up at his own wedding. Benali was born in Ighazzazen, Morocco, in 1975, came to Rotterdam with his parents at the age of four and is now studying history in Leiden.

Benali has just been awarded the prestigious Libris Literature Prize for his latest novel, which has not yet been translated into German. The protagonist, Mehdi, grows up as the son of a Moroccan immigrant family in the Netherlands and at the age of 17 gets his first love pregnant. Despite his girlfriend’s family initially eyeing Mehdi’s family with scepticism, a reconciliation is eventually brought about and the child is born on New Year’s Eve 1999/2000.

While this brief synopsis might read like a dry didactic text on international relations, it is in reality a colourful blend of genres and narrative traditions. At times ironic, at times romantic; the author moves seamlessly from a realistic and psychological report to a fairytale and weaves in episodes reminiscent of Jewish village tales.

While the meeting of the two cultures is an ever-present theme, it presents the author with more opportunities for spinning colourful yarns than for weighing up deep considerations. The fact that literature with such a light touch is born of a hybrid identity is an indication that the integration of Moroccan authors in their new home, the Netherlands, must already be very advanced in many ways.

Ilja Braun

© Qantara.de 2004

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