8 Nov

As I was riding my bike through cold and windy Sloterdijk, a man, wrapped in a shawl, gloves and a hat, asked me: “Centraal Station – where?”. He looked lost. I told him to tag along since I was going in the same direction, and off we went. After a couple of minutes of silently cycling side by side, I decided to start a conversation. But in which language? Neither Dutch nor English seemed to be his mother tongue. He cut me short. “Me- from Portugal. Lisboa. You?” We started talking in my best Portuguese and his best Spanish, and we ended up discussing the financial crisis and Dutch politics. He moved here in search of a job as an electrician and now found himself fearing the rise of the right. What he loved about Holland? André Hazes (for the non-Dutch: Amsterdam’s ballad king). His music reminded him of fado, he said. “Real music. The language of life.”
Language is a miracle. And knowing your languages is an even bigger miracle. It opens doors and facilitates all sorts of exchange. Concepts of self and others, traditions and fresh ideas, songs (speaking of which, did yall see my first ever music video with the ever so soulful LQ?), poems and books, declarations of love, words of wisdom or directions for a lost traveler, all transmittable through words.
Last Sunday’s SOAPbox, a new monthly gathering that connects the dots, do’s and don’ts of Dutch colonialism and Afro-diasporic art at Ninsee, was about ‘The survival and revival of identity through language’. In an intimate living room setting, we discussed luggage, legacies and lessons for the future. We talked about freedom and oppression, families and faith. About multiple identities, passing the baton and the power of knowledge. Pannelists Walther Bourne, Kitchell Samuel and Angelo Bromet surely inspired a beautiful long night of talking around my kitchen table, I can tell you that much. Looking forward to the next edition on December 5th!
Where was I.. Yes. Language. Not everybody seems to be aware of the power of it. How easily do people in Holland wish each other the most horrible deseases. How easily do n-words and b-words find their way in and beyond the streets of Bijlmer, Brooklyn or the Bronx. And how easily do some people abroad assume I won’t understand what they say. Last week, on my way back from Warsaw to Amsterdam, me (blond) and my (brown skinned) business partner were standing in a packed bus ready to board the plane. “Shouf hedhi” I overheard a man say to his friends. “Creme and chocolate.” I bit my tongue. But as the conversation continued and was turning even uglier, I had to speak up. “Excuse me”, I said in unmistakable Arabic. “I happen to be standing here, and I happen to speak your language. I understand every word you say. Please stop talking about us. Enough is enough.” The men looked like they had just seen a ghost and mumbled their way out of a painful situation.
No, knowing your languages is not always necessarily nice. But still, it is the key. Just as simple as ABC.

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