Who is Babah Tarawally?
After fleeing Sierra Leone for the Netherlands 17 years ago and spending the first seven of those years filing an asylum application, Babah Tarawally began working for independent media outlets in Africa. Alongside this work, he contributes stories and columns to several newspapers. His novel De god met de blauwe ogen (‘The blue-eyed god’) was published in 2010 by KIT. Babah lives with his partner and two daughters in the Netherlands, though is currently working on a project in Sierra Leone.
My Dutch friend drives a Japanese car, eats Italian food, drinks more than ten cups of Kenyan coffee a day and goes to Turkey twice a year on holiday. Given this multicultural ensemble of preferences, which I took to be a reflection of his open-mindedness, I nicknamed him The Most Tolerant Dutchman I’ve Ever Known. But how true is this conception?
During the Netherlands’ recent parliamentary election, I was shocked when he told me he would be voting for Geert Wilders’ far right party, the PVV. I asked why he would vote for a politician who was against all of what my friend stood for. “Don’t feel offended, Babah,” he answered. “I don’t mean to hurt you with this decision. You are a different kind of immigrant.”
At first I thought I should take his remark as a great compliment. After all, such acceptance and sense of belonging is what those of us immigrants who are liberal and attuned to life in the West strive for. But before I could feel complimented, I needed him to clarify who the other kind of immigrant was, the kind who had pissed him off so much that he was willing to vote for a political party that was intolerant and nationalistic to a fault.
“Well,” he said, “to be frank, I think this Wilders guy is the only one whose party can adequately address the issue of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants who are causing problems in our society.” The narrow-minded response astounded me. I began to wonder whether this friend I have known for the past ten years was not a total stranger to me. He continued: “I am not a racist; I have a black friend – you.” And with this last remark, I became uncomfortable. Suddenly, my colour was being used as a token example of his inclusiveness.
My friend and most of his compatriots would like to consider themselves welcoming of diversity – in word, tolerant. But why? Is this characterization so important for the survival of the Dutch? It is especially puzzling when the reality is that they are only tolerant for as long as 'the other' does not in any way infringe on their lifestyle. Perhaps when my friend embraces diversity, it is really just his being practical. Added up, the cheap Japanese car, easy takeaway pizza, refreshing Kenyan coffee and a black African friend are all convenient choices that allow him to adopt the persona of a model citizen, or The Most Tolerant Dutchman I’ve Ever Known.
Read all the other columns in the series Africans going Dutch.