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Ahmed N. Mabruk
Apher A. L.
I have recently relocated to Geneva, Switzerland, after close to ten years in the US. I must admit that despite been warned about the stereotypes I did not think the situation would be that bad. But it is a rather baffling issue here, and not in Holland alone. My very first incident happened at the work place. I am an Amazigh from the Souss, Morocco and my complexion is rather fair but my features are nonetheless unmistakably North African. I was having a friendly conversation with an older Swiss lady who was asking about my impressions of Geneva having just relocated from the US when the woman, unaware of my origins, let it slip that I "should be very careful with those 'Maghrebins' selling drugs and mugging people around Lac Lehman." Of course I did not know what to answer, after all there was some truth to what she was saying.
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — Within five minutes of stepping off the train and onto the platform in Central Station when I arrived here earlier this month, I got a taste of the “typical Dutch” bluntness that my fellowship coordinators warned the nine other American students and me about.
Our host families huddled in a group inside the station, each visibly eager to greet the American to whom they had voluntarily offered room and board (read: a cot and waffles) for the month, free of charge.
Other than their height—one woman towered above me at a jaw-dropping 6’1”—what struck me about the families was what they represented, or failed to represent. Collectively, they showcased nearly every social variation possible, from age to sexual orientation.
My own host family included a self-professed socialist lawyer and a pregnant Green Peace employee, both of whom view marriage as unnecessary and have decided to remain in a “partnership” despite the imminent arrival of their first child.
Still, all the families were “native Dutch,” the politically correct term for “white” in this country.
Of course, this didn’t bother me in the least. But it might help explain why the first exchange with one of the host “mothers” went something like this.
Me: "Hi, I’m from America. Good to meet you."
Mother: "Hi there. Are you Moroccan?"
In our country, such a question—as impulsive as it seems—would rarely garner anything but a short laugh and clarification from me, or, I think it’s safe to say, from anyone who looks remotely Arab. But in Holland, as I soon found out, Moroccans possess a universally-accepted, second-class social status—as do most other “allochtoon,” a now-derogatory word for “immigrant.” Ask any Dutch person, and he or she will (bluntly) tell you the same.
To be sure, the host mom’s question was indeed a loaded one. It reflected a deep preoccupation with ethnicity in Dutch society—a preoccupation that exists even in Amsterdam, a city renowned for its tolerance.
But she wouldn’t be the last “native Dutch” to ask me if I was Moroccan.
Just last week, I interviewed a professor at the University of Amsterdam for my research. At the conclusion of our hour-long discussion, she (bluntly) asked me, “Were your parents born in Morocco?”
And the week before, I was asked essentially the same question at a soiree in Frankendael Park, though the man arguably had a bit more social grace than the other two (i.e. he didn’t explicitly mention “Morocco” or “Moroccan”). In the middle of our conversation, he (again, bluntly) interjected, “What’s your background? Arab?”
I would never have expected to arrive at such a conclusion, but after working in Amsterdam for the past month, I’ve realized that I’ve never traveled to or lived in a place where I’ve felt more conscious of my skin color than this one.
If someone were to ask me about my ethnic background in Cambridge, I would equate the question with an invitation to discuss my mixed ancestry—my father is Libyan, and my mother is German.
But the Dutch, in general, seem to take stereotypes to the extreme. I’ve learned from other “allochtoon” how insulting such a question actually is here. “It implies you don’t belong,” one woman, who is originally from South Korea, told me.
For Arabs, the situation is worse. To assume a young man is “Moroccan” is to assume he is a juvenile delinquent, said Frank Bovenerk, a former professor of criminology at the University of Utrecht.
“Here, it’s very popular to focus on race and ethnicity,” Bovenerk told me after a guest lecture I attended two weeks ago. “Xenophobia is rampant—to the point that minorities are actually afraid of deportation.”
As an outsider, it baffles me how this could ever happen in The Netherlands. During World War II, it was the advanced Dutch system of registering ethnic minorities that facilitated the deportation and subsequent extermination of innocent Jews from this country. Though the Dutch have since trumpeted the mantra of “never again,” has their society really learned its lesson?
I’m a little afraid to get the blunt answer.
Article by AHMED N. MABRUK was first published by the Harvard Crimson
Ahmed N. Mabruk ’11, a Crimson news writer, is a history concentrator in Harvard University’s Mather House.