Ramsey Nasr is the Dutch poet laureate. In this role, Mr Nasr has written poems and given talks commemorating national occasions. An anthology of his work as poet laureate was recently published, under the title My New Fatherland: Poems of crisis and fear.
Unlike in some countries, this isn't a government appointment; rather it is an elected position established by a group of media concerns. But that takes nothing away from the fact that becoming poet laureate is an acknowledgement of national renown.
Non-native or native Dutch?
Nasr was born in the Netherlands, his father a Palestinian immigrant and his mother native Dutch. He grew up speaking only Dutch, and has always identified himself as native Dutch with no modifier. Nasr says it was only after he came of age that he was forced by those who questioned his Dutch-ness to confront his foreign background.
A desert of infinite freedom
Nasr’s successful submission to the poet laureate election was the poem ‘I wish I were two citizens’. Here are the last three stanzes, in an English translation by David Colmer. It is part of an anthology Heavenly Life, which was nominated for the European Corneliu M Popescu Prize.
This land is the revenge of the forefathers
Like an iconoclastic fury they rage on in us
But it exists – like the connection
between burqas and kids’ padded bikinis exists
between buttermilk and binge drinking
concave and convex our centuries slide together
cancelling each other out is our strength
our nature strives for emptiness
like the Cyclops longs for depth
you see, I wanted to show you a fatherland
not this desert of infinite freedom
but this is where we live
and how beautiful it would be
if someone one day like a second-hand deity
could build a country rhyme by rhyme
for this nation that misses its nation
here of all places in the open pit of our heart
we can achieve something great
a poem’s a start
As poet laureate, Nasr has raised some hackles. His poems and opinion pieces have been particularly critical of the current Dutch cabinet and its reliance on Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party. He has been the target of numerous hate-mails.
"You’re not a poet laureate, but a poet of treason" and "You're not really Dutch. Go back to the sandbox you came from. We don’t need dirt like you here." He says he gets many such mails, often telling him to ‘f*** off’. He is surprisingly laconic about all of this, saying it comes with the territory in such a polarised climate.
But how has it come to this, where the country’s poet laureate is routinely threatened? The Netherlands, once known for celebrating debate and welcoming people from other cultures, has, since the beginning of this century, begun turning in on itself and become increasingly nationalistic and anti-immigrant.
The current political embodiment of this change is Geert Wilders. Mr Wilders presents himself as a defender of Dutch values, going so far as to pose for a national magazine dressed as 17th century naval hero Michiel de Ruyter.
Mr Nasr, however, believes he himself is a true protector of historic Dutch values, and that it is Mr Wilders who is undermining Dutch identity.
“I’m not proud of this, and I don’t particularly like to emphasise it. But one of the major problems that the Netherlands is facing today is that we are looking for a pure monocultural identity that never existed…
That is one of the great things in Dutch history - during the 17th century, for instance, we were dealing with all sorts of opinions, we were sure about the fact that there was no clarity in life, the world was always evolving. Now all of a sudden we think the country is finished, we think we have clear borders and that’s why we now have a clear Dutch identity.”
So where does this come from? Why the change from embracing nuance to imposing an artificial sense of clarity?
“We are being confronted with a huge backlash, which doesn't come out of nothing. We were the freest country in the world and we were very proud of this… but now we are facing a crisis that is undermining our Dutch identity.”
No longer open
The crisis Nasr is referring to is a cultural one (not to be confused with the current financial crisis). Dutch society has for centuries cultivated a rich climate for debate, says Nasr, including the publication of radical ideas that were then spread throughout Europe. The seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza is one example of this.
Nowadays, public figures in the Netherlands avoid debate, and want to silence voices that run counter to their own way of thinking. Nasr says the left is just as guilty of this as the right. This country, says Nasr, is like a snake biting its own tail.
“We’ve always been a revolutionary people, we’ve always liked to discuss things, we’ve always been an open society. We’ve always granted people the freedom to spread different opinions. Now we’ve become so scared that we don’t want to hear anyone’s opinions anymore.”
Looking for easy answers
Nasr, as a son of an immigrant himself, admits that problems with integration of the wave of immigrants in the 1960s and 70s is part of what leads to that fear. But he says there is much more going on that's at least as important. Globalisation, the fading of national borders, the increasing encroachment of the European Union into Dutch national identity, and lately, or course, the economic crisis. This all leads Dutch people to ask themselves, ‘What is our national identity?’
“We are struggling to find out who we are again, and we are susceptible to people who promise to have the cure for this.”
Geert Wilders promises a cure, and, even though this cure makes what Nasr believes is an erroneous claim to the exclusivity of Dutch culture, it is popular due to the fear of a changing world.
Ramsey Nasr’s own view of the world does not provide such easy answers. But in his world view, easy answers are by definition a fiction.