Hurray! The cultural season has started again. I do love the summer, and I enjoyed it to the fullest. But after these new Dutch heat records and the lazing away with too many beers, I always find “De Uitmarkt” (the opening of the cultural season) very refreshing.
Last summer at the small Betty Asfalt theatre in Amsterdam, I saw a great show. It had one of Holland’s great musical stars of the past, Frank Sanders (73), together with three younger (musical) stars (Wesley de Ridder, Samir Hassan, Mitch Wolterink - with pianist Guus van Wolde), performed in a wonderfully styled drag queen show, “The Rozettes 4ever.” It was not only a show about the confrontation between the young and the old, between the Amsterdam of the past and now, and between art and entertainment, but also a confrontation between prejudices, because why assume that a drag queen cannot be straight?
Drag queen = man dressed in women’s clothes = gay.
Prior to the show that evening, I visited my Turkish friend Can. He invited me to have dinner with him. Can has been living in Amsterdam for a number of years, works for a bank, is intelligent, funny, well-read and gay, and was raised (non-religiously) by his mother - a psychologist from Istanbul - who never made a problem of his homosexuality. He came to the Netherlands to work for a Turkish bank. That was not always easy. Many Turkish colleagues were rather strict when it came to their country of birth or faith, which my friend found difficult. Eating pork, drinking alcohol, being openly gay, and not supporting Erdogan: it was not appreciated by some of his colleagues. “To many of my Turkish colleagues I was this liberated gay man from Istanbul,” he told me.
Can decided to start working for a Dutch bank. There he got - in addition to many Dutch colleagues - a Turkish woman as a colleague who shared his world view. She told him that at the beginning of her career, a Dutch colleague had told her how lucky she was to work there. “If you had stayed in Turkey, you would now be sitting at home with a headscarf,” the man told her, smiling under the guise of a joke.
“Many Dutch colleagues continue to see us as ‘The Turks,’” Can told me while he poured me a glass of raki. “We have to answer time and time again for what Erdogan is doing, as well as for the nationalism of Dutch Turks. We continuously have to explain to the Dutch that we do more in our spare time than just visiting other Turks. And surprised, one colleague asked me “Really, do you eat pork?’ three times.”
Although the French-Lebanese sociologist Maalouf already wrote about identity in his book “Murderous Identities” (each writes his own history, taking into account what we remember from our tradition, the symbols and traditions of the groups to which we belong, but also taking into account the immediate future we have in mind for ourselves) it appears to be very difficult for many to see every person as an individual. Everyone writes his or her own novel, and “the other” really wants to know under which category that novel can be found in the library. Is it a thriller, science fiction or a literary novel?
Despite the fact that, according to Maalouf, our identity is a unique fusion of many different elements that fit together differently for everyone and that is constantly changing over the years (people integrate aspects of the group, but they also transform them: the individual builds an identity that refers both to the symbolic bond he has with the groups to which he belongs and to a unique, personal element, in function of his history, his life course) “the other” often finds it much easier to choose a few aspects from the enormous amount of identity elements at will, ones that suit the “other” best. Not entirely coincidentally, these are often the elements that are most exposed in the media. Turkish = Erdogan = Muslim = Nationalist.
I recognized much of what Can said in my position as a columnist. When I once wondered in a column in this magazine how many GLBT people would avoid a mosque when it was again plagued by right-wing extremists, a reader felt it was necessary to put my writing away as “left-wing socio-babble nonsense.”
When I made a comment a while ago in a column in another magazine that I was once harassed by “too many testosterone Moroccans,” however, while penning down in that same column my concerns about the well-being of a Jewish girlfriend, about my work for the Pink Marrakech foundation and about the much needed protection of all minorities in the Netherlands, a reader thought it necessary to call me a racist.
The moment I indicate that I approach every religion as an institution with the necessary suspicion and that I want to see those institutions in the margins of political power, while writing in exactly the same column how I like it when I enter my hotel business in Amsterdam and I hear my Moroccan receptionist explain to guests where the gay entertainment areas in our capital are located, or when I hear my breakfast lady with headscarf having fun with the older gay couple staying in my hotel, I am still called Islamophobic by readers.
Standing up for Islam = left-wing = socio-babble nonsense.
Criticism of faith = supporter of the burqa ban = Pegida = Islamophobic.
My friend Can and I quickly agreed. “I would like to see,” he said, “that people read my novel as it is meant to be: as an individual report of a journey I made myself and of a hopefully future path in which the reader offers me enough space to be able to be who I want to be without always portraying myself as a one-dimensional, flat character.
Yes, I am Turkish. Yes, I am gay. Yes, I eat pork. Yes, I love Amsterdam. Yes, Erdogan can get lost. Yes, I love Istanbul. Yes, I drink alcohol. Yes, people should be allowed to wear a headscarf. Yes, I believe in freedom of religion. Yes, I am an unbeliever. Yes, I wave the rainbow flag during Pride.” I nodded.
“You ARE the book, Can.” He nodded. “You ARE the book as well, Rick.” “Yes. In the library they can find me under the M of ‘Van der Made’ and not under the S of ‘Socio-babbling’ or under the I of ‘Islamophobic.’”
I went to the play. Afterwards, Can picked me up for a drink on the Spui. I told him about the play’s heterosexual drag queen character, and the shock felt by the gay drag character when this came out. A shock that quickly turned into: “Oh well, why not?” “Perhaps Mr. Sanders can create a theatrical performance based on my novel,” Can said with a wink. “Why not?,” I said, and took another sip of my beer.
I wish you all a wonderful new cultural year with - hopefully - a great new theatrical performance by Frank, Wesley, Mitch, Samir and Guus.
Note: From 1989 to 2019 the Amsterdam theater Betty Asfalt Complex was owned by Dammie van Geest and his husband, author, actor, and cabaret artist Paul Haenen, who’s also widely known since 1975 as his alter ego Margreet Dolman