Tue, Oct 05, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Europe’s complex new fear of immigrants

One of Holland’s leading writers laments the way that the migrant dream has turned to suspicion on both sides

By Abdelkader Benali  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

When I arrived with my mother in Rotterdam in the late 1970s, we thought we had found a safe haven. Coming from the sharp-edged mountains of north Morocco, the streets of the Low Countries felt like a place where everything could be done better. It did not seem possible that, 30 years later, the likes of Member of Parliament Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom would wield influence, pushing his ban on the burqa, but then there were no burqas to be seen in the street.

The Netherlands felt like a country that would never betray me. I was greeted with enthusiasm at kindergarten; my name was the longest among the pupils and it was assumed I was very proud of that. Dutch culture was like a tattoo being imprinted on my brown skin. I learned the language and delighted in excelling at it in front of my teachers. I was their dream of multiculturalism: a foreigner who showed he could adapt to their culture through language. The mothers of classmates would inform me that they loved Moroccan cuisine, especially couscous. They would speak vividly, romantically about foreign cultures such as mine, and I felt proud.

The fact that I was different made me feel special and the Dutch created wonder in me as a child. They tolerated their dogs on their couches; they gave generously to faraway peoples suffering from disaster and sickness. I didn’t only read fairy tales, I lived one.

Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1990s and change. Europe decided it needed immigrants. The first change I saw was at home. My parents, growing older, gave up hope of the family returning to Morocco. Slowly, the feeling took over that we were here to stay, maintaining the privileges and opportunities of living in Europe. With that came the unease that their children would lose their identity. Already, we spoke Dutch, not Berber.

Meanwhile, the Dutch were waking up to the reality that most immigrants would never go back. Friday evening in Rotterdam saw large groups of immigrant children in the streets, estranged from their roots, trying to find solace in consumerism and urban culture, but also feeling alienated from Dutch society. Turks hung out with Turks, Moroccans with Moroccans. The melting pot didn’t heat up, the elements weren’t mixing. In my neighborhood, former convicts stopped me to talk about Islam. They felt that my staunchly secular lifestyle would not only bring disaster to me, but also to the spiritual community of Islam. A young friend introduced me to his uncle who had just come back from Afghanistan. He was a mujahidin.

I failed to see the shift. Immigrants had been seen by most Dutch as a marginal, colorful people from whose shops they could buy their meat and vegetables at ridiculously low prices. I knew this because my father had a butcher’s shop and I would sell them their lamb chops. As the 1990s progressed, the difference between allochtoon — one “originating from another country” — and autochtoon — “one originating from this country” began to be emphasized.

Allochtoon started becoming synonymous for criminality, big families, bad living and Islam. This wasn’t restricted to Holland. In Germany, questions were being raised about Turkish immigrants adhering to a fundamentalist Islam. Thousands of young French-Algerian football fans stormed the pitch when France played Algeria, their way of saying: “We don’t feel we belong in this country.”

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