Said el Haji · Holland

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Vulnerability and the need for borders

Let me tell you a story about vulnerability and the need for borders. A story that depicts a period of five years from my own life. A personal story about moral confusion and detachment.

Inspired by Siddharta, the novel of the German author and winner of the Nobel prize Hermann Hesse, where the main character defies the wishes and expectations of his pious Brahman father, I wrote a similar story, but as it is experienced by someone whose father is a pious Muslim. I was 23 years old and proud of my book. But it struck me how my fellow Dutch Moroccans reacted on it. I was a traitor, they said, an immoral figure who shits on his culture and wants praise for it, a self-hating Moroccan Salman Rushdie. They said that a real Moroccan would never write such a book, that a real Moroccan was proud and respectful towards his father. The rumour got spread that my name existed on a list of Islam bashers somewhere in Jordan.

I don’t know if these voices reflected the majority, but they were certainly the loudest. Were they Jihadists? No, they were normal Muslim pupils and students.

It made me realise the miserable position of the individual in my own Dutch-Moroccan community. This is the result of a patriarchal and collectivist culture, in which the individual has no space for diversion. One who chooses to lead his own life is not allowed to do it publicly. Who dares to do it publicly gets scorned, especially when religion is involved. According to this mentality a Moroccan is primarily Muslim. A Christian or a Buddhist Moroccan is not a real Moroccan. What’s more is that vulnerable communities, such as the Moroccan in Holland, get easily paranoid. Therefore a Moroccan atheist is not viewed as someone who chooses to be so simply because he doesn’t believe in God, but as a hypocrite and a coward who pretends to be an atheist in order to be loved by the West.

In the beginning I only laughed at this narrow-mindedness. My primary assumption was that all the publicity for my book was welcome. In interviews I quoted Oscar Wilde who wrote that there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not to be talked about. Yes, I got a lot of attention from the media and I felt flattered by it. I didn’t realise the effects of so much negativity and hostility from my fellow Dutch Moroccans. Until one morning at a literary event. I gave a reading there and suddenly a Moroccan girl stood up and said that she had not read my book and she was never going to, because she was told that I had insulted my roots and religion and by doing so I had insulted hers. Suddenly I wasn’t so proud anymore. I was exhausted. ‘It has never been my intention to hurt you or anyone else with my book. And if it makes you feel any better: I regret that I wrote it,’ I said. A Dutch woman intervened by saying that she was appalled by what I just had said, since a writer must be strong and independent. She had read my book and she loved it, she said.

Confused and completely fed up by my book I stopped performing at public events. I escaped into solitude. I didn’t build walls and fences to make me feel protected, I just stayed at home and smoked a lot of marihuana. I only went outside for groceries.

This dynamic got even worse after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. The societal pressure to close ranks was enormous. In the media and public debate it was all about Islam and the problematic situation of Muslims in the West, about good people with a bad religion. I didn’t want to be part of it all, so I stayed on my path of solitude. I smoked even more marihuana and so I became more and more detached from my surroundings, so much that I could only cry. I cried in bed, in the shower, during my walk to the nearest supermarket… It just happened and I didn’t really know why.

Then, in November 2004, a Dutch filmmaker named Theo van Gogh was butchered on the street in broad daylight. The butcher was called Mohammed Bouyeri, a young Jihadist of Moroccan descent. By doing what he did he wanted to send a message to the Dutch-Somalian critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She had dared to make a film with Van Gogh where a naked female body is shown with Quranic verses on it. The message definitely got sent. It shocked the nation. It shocked the hell out of me too. My perception of reality became severely black and white. Walking down the streets of my neighbourhood I only saw racists and terrorists. I couldn’t believe people were still able to laugh out loud and unprejudiced. I even hated them. I blamed the media. So I stopped reading papers, I stopped watching news and topics, I listened to music and read novels. I thought about my father a lot. He had died in 2000, a half year before my novel was published. For the very first time I was thankful that he had introduced Islam in my life at a young age. Why? Because I didn’t feel any attraction, I was fed up by religion; otherwise I would have become a Jihadist like Mohammed Bouyeri too. But thanks to my father I didn’t romanticize Islam, nor did I cherish the illusion of a utopian community of believers. What I longed for was the individual freedom that I once had gained in my family but that I now seemed to have lost in the world out there.

I finally regained it in America. That was in 2005 when I was invited by the University of Iowa to participate in an international writing program. There, I was among thirty other writers from all over the world. I felt liberated there since nobody cared about whether I was a real Moroccan or not. Nobody judged me. Finally I felt connected with the world again. It was as if I was cured from a disease.

Yet still there was one Saudi poet who blamed me for the fact that I didn’t call myself Muslim. Was it because I was afraid or ashamed maybe. She said she was proud of her faith and she wanted to tell the whole world about it. Islam gave her the strength to lead the life she wanted, regardless of what the conservative and highly patriarchal society of Saudi Arabia thought of her. She was wealthy, independent and had married and divorced five times already. Which is not forbidden in Islam, she said. I liked her honesty. But you’re wrong, I said. I’m not ashamed of my Islamic background, nor am I afraid. The only reason why I don’t call myself Muslim is simply because I’m not. Why is that so hard to believe?