If you arrive in the Netherlands for the first time in your life and it’s December, it’s easy to get the impression there’s one test of Dutchness, one path to fitting in: ice skating. You can’t avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist.
Hunker down in your warm flat, and there it is on TV. Sit with a group of Dutch friends, and when they talk among themselves it seems they can only talk about one thing: which rink is open, and when, oh when will the canals freeze.
I was in love with the Netherlands the minute I stepped out of Schiphol, grateful and bewildered by the way the border agents welcomed me. In my first weeks here, in a hurry to blend in, I desperately wanted to learn to skate. But no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t convince myself to brave the elements. Too cold. Too scary. Too dangerous. I scolded myself for my cowardice. I reminded myself that when I was a kid, the same age as those little ones I’d watch tearing around the rink, I’d nestle my own skinny body in the snug inner circumference of a big old tire and let one of my friends propel me off the top of a Saharan sand dune. I assured myself that falling on the ice couldn’t possibly be worse than going head over heels on our spinning descents and then hitting a bump that would send us sprawling; every time, I’d shake off the momentary dizziness and disorientation and drag the tire up the dune to reciprocate the favor, sending my friends tumbling on their own wild ride.
It didn’t work. Skating means hanging out in frigid temperatures and falling while skating on ice. Our dune escapades played out against the sun’s gradual descent toward the western horizon and an evening breeze that tempered the desert’s fire. When we landed, we sank into soft, cooling sand. After a few months, I had to face facts: I wasn’t going to skate, not now, not ever. My Dutch friends refused to believe me. Fresh from the rink, all rosy and happy, they’d assure me, ‘One of these days, and for sure when the canals freeze, you’ll be out there, too; you’ll experience nature and the Netherlands at their best.’ ‘I hate being cold. I’ll stay inside. Give my regards to nature,’ I’d answer. They’d laugh. ‘You’ll never integrate like that,’ they teased. But the more we played this way, the more certain and determined I became. I will not—I’ll say it here—ever skate.
Mohamedou at the Rembrandt Square in Amsterdam
Stubbornness like this is in my blood. A North African legend celebrates it. There once lived a Bedouin, the story goes, whose stubbornness was renowned far and wide. When he arrived in a town, naturally he drew a crowd; even more so when he boldly declared that he possessed the ability to drive a nail through a solid brick wall using only his head as a hammer. With a mix of anticipation and awe, the crowd led him to such a wall and handed him a giant nail. Undaunted, the Bedouin set to work, pounding the nail with his famous head; with each blow the nail dove deeper, provoking cheers and wild applause from the crowd. But as he approached the halfway mark, an unexpected obstacle halted his progress. The Bedouin beat his head again and again against the nail, but to his disbelief and the disbelief of the crowd, but pound as he might, it would not go any further.
For a long time, the Bedouin and the crowd just stood there staring at the nail, perplexed, disheartened, dumbfounded. The Bedouin’s stubbornness was legendary, and so the fact that he seemed to be giving up made the setback all the more confounding. Finally, driven by curiosity, a boy in the crowd ventured to the other side of the wall. There, seated against the wall, his head inadvertently learning against the very spot the nail should have penetrated, was another Bedouin.
This stubbornness, I’ve learned, is also very Dutch. ‘A land of stubborn optimists,’ Prime Minister called the Netherlands in a speech not long after I arrived, promising ‘Volgens mij hebben we alles in huis om Nederland Nederland te laten blijven. Trots, koppigheid en zelfvertrouwen.’ So essential and characteristic is this stubbornness, apparently, that the expat blogger Shallow Man lists THOU SHALT BE STUBBORN as the First Commandment of fitting into Dutch society.
And so, I started joking to myself, my refusal to learn how to skate was an expression of Dutchness, too. The stubborn optimism that led me to study a map of Amsterdam so that when I climbed off the tram near my new ICORN home, my whole life and all my belongings packed Bedouin-like into a single cheap roller bag, I already knew where the closest supermarket would be: that was an example of the Prime Minister’s stubborn optimism. That same stubborn optimism drove me to bulldoze my way, boldly and shamelessly, through the Dutch language, fortified by a lesson we learned as kids in Mauritania: that exposing our ignorance is an essential part of the path to knowledge. As the revered Imam Al Shafii put in in a poem in the eighth or ninth century, “Whoever refuses to taste the humiliation of learning for an hour will suffer the humiliation of ignorance all his life.”
My boldness, though, has its limits. After fifteen long years in prison, most of them endured in isolation, I found myself plagued by a fear of social interaction. This was in stark contrast to the pre-prison me, who relished the idea of venturing out and connecting with people. Back then, I’d finish work and happily socialize late into the night, much to my mother’s consternation. But by the time I reached the beautiful refuge of the Netherlands, I was somebody else completely, someone who found himself gripped by nervousness and fear whenever he ventured into public places. The first time my host and friend Eva took me out for a coffee, anxiety consumed me. I held my breath the whole time, pretending to enjoy a simple cup of coffee amidst strangers but desperately longing to leave the café, sure the whole time my vulnerability was on full display.
Still, Amsterdam welcomed me. I soon came to love my solitary strolls through its streets and along its canals, savoring the scents and scenes of the city. When I was behind bars I never had the opportunity to see the sun rise or set; I dreamed of walking along an endless street, unconstrained, with unrestricted access to the sun and sky. I was among others, happy to observe others without engaging. I cherished the ability to blend into the Amsterdam crowds and remain anonymous; after years of relentless attention, I relished the freedom to be a nobody, anonymously strolling the city’s bustling streets.
In short, I now find myself a contented camper in this lovely land, surrounded by its wonderful people. I’ve truly found a place of solace and comfort. I’ve found—is there a more beautiful or blessed word?—a sanctuary.
I was meditating on this incredible word the other day when I was waiting to order lunch in an Amsterdam restaurant. ‘Mag ik een broodje hebben?’ I asked the waiter, emphasizing every syllable, eager to show off my newly acquired Dutch vocabulary. ‘I don’t speak Dutch!’ he answered. Confused, it took me a moment to find the English wording in my brain to order a sandwich. I spent the rest of my lunch watching him, another newcomer like me, move as effortlessly as a skater from table to table.
After a few months, I had to face facts: I wasn’t going to skate, not now, not ever.