214 Five cities and five pillars

At an exhibition in Amsterdam titled Urban Islam, the life styles and attitudes toward religion of young Muslims from around the world are presented with short films and attributes from daily life. Their real choices have less to do with faith than with how to dress. They seem more secular than young Americans. Can this be right?

Paramaribo is a social paradise. I learned this from Farina Ilahibaks, a sultry beauty studying development sociology at the Anton de Kom University in that city. Christians and Winti, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists live there together in harmony, eating each other’s dishes, celebrating each other’s holidays, nearly worshipping each other’s gods.

Farina is one of the four attractive young avatars featured in Urban Islam, an ambitious exhibition at the KIT Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Just as she tells of multicultural life as a Muslim in Paramaribo, the Turkish schoolteacher Ferhat talks about being a secular Muslim in Istanbul, the student Hanane about the problems of the modern Muslima in Marrakech and the market salesman Alioune about saint worship and pop music in Dakar. Each story deals with a different set of conflicting values. The Turkish story is about secularism (or Ataturkism) versus religion, the Moroccan about piety versus worldliness, the Senegalese about purity not versus but combined with sensuality. This intelligent approach allows the visitor to get a clear feeling for the issues involved while understanding that they are being simplified for his benefit.

As for Paramaribo: despite Farina’s upbeat take on group relations in her city, the visitor learns that the Javanese Muslims there are irreconcilably divided on the question of whether to pray facing east, where Mecca lies in relation to Suriname, or west, its location vis-à-vis Java. Somehow or other, I suspect that divisions of this kind, between as well as among groups, are just as important in Suriname as culinary fraternizing at outdoor stands, with Indians eating Chinese noodles and Jews (looking over their shoulders) roti and kouseband. Farina is quoted in the brochure as saying that the various groups, as well as they get on, know very little about each other.

The lively spaces in the pavilion where these stories are told, in brief videotapes supplemented with objects from daily life, surround a quiet central area reserved for a primer on Islam as a religion. In a more conventional display, themes such as God, Mohammed, the Mosque and the Five Pillars of Islam are explained in a paragraph each and illustrated with a few objects.

What fascinated me most about the exhibition is the lack of connection between the center and the periphery. True, Ferhat worries about who in his family goes to prayer and who fasts during Ramadan, two of the Five Pillars. But the issues that really preoccupy these young people are non-Koranic signs and symbols. In particular the two girls had to make large principled choices – do I go for a traditional or a contemporary look? scarf or no scarf? – and within them highly refined distinctions about exactly how much eye-shadow and lipstick of what tint, which hair-length and hemline, what jewelry will best and most flatteringly convey what she thinks about life, society and Islam.

By contrast, the information about the Muslim religion in the central area is flat and impersonal. So little distinction is drawn between one display and the next that in the section on the Koran a 10th-century manuscript page on vellum is displayed indiscriminately next to a decorative textile rendition of the first surah made in 2002. This makes quite a difference with the quality of observation and analysis lavished by the organizers on the fine distinctions between the cut of present-day Turkish bridal gowns, the editorial formula of Moroccan glossy magazines and the degree of irreverence in the rap groups of Dakar.

The exhibition left me puzzled about the role of Islam itself in the lives of young Muslims. Are the Dutch organizers projecting their own irreligious populism onto the subject, or does the content of Islam, beyond a few generalities (“I want to be a good person, which means that I am a good Muslim”), play no role in the thinking of Farina and her contemporaries? The only statement in the exhibition that dealt at all with that question was in the sermon of the Moroccan tv preacher Amr Khaled. He accused his student audience of placing God only ninth or tenth on their scale of priorities, after trivialities like money, clothes, cars, sex, music and work. If he is right, the average young Moroccan is considerably more secularized than his counterpart in America, who is apt to be a born-again Christian in daily dialogue with Jesus. Can this be right?

There is a fifth city in Urban Islam – Amsterdam, where people from all the other countries live. The theme for Amsterdam is the image of the Muslim in Dutch society. Here not one voice but a melange of opinions is presented, between which the visitor can register his choice after scanning a personal but anonymous bar code into a reader. This section is appropriately complex and messy, with speakers contradicting each other and themselves in more genuine real-life fashion than in the rest of the exhibition. (The steps required for evoking and reacting to these statements, I must say, were confusing.)

Having gone as far as they have, with considerable energy and talent, the organizers of Urban Islam might take advantage of an opportunity they themselves have created. I would find it interesting to know whether visitors who have spent an hour in the rest of the exhibition react differently to the questions in the Amsterdam section than those who walk in cold. Attitudes toward Muslims in the Netherlands are a hot issue. Can a little bit of knowledge affect them? If so, how?


© Gary Schwartz 2004. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 17 July 2004.

Monday, 5 July: For something like the tenth year running, gave a guest lecture for Hans Van Miegroet’s intensive course in Dutch and Flemish art for American students, run through Duke University, where he teaches. The course lasts for six weeks. From its bivouacs in Amsterdam and Ghent, the group visits many locations. Hans gives me a completely free hand in the subject for my morning or afternoon with the students. When I asked him if he does not have a preference, he said, “I have learned that the thing that makes the most impression on the students is sincerity and passion. If you talk to them about something that matters to you, it will work, no matter what the subject.” This year I gave a repeat performance of my Jan van der Heyden in Maarsseveen talk and walk, from my house, where Loekie gave the students cool drinks and stroopwafels. It was as always a pleasure.

Tuesday, 7 July: Questioned in Amsterdam after work by Koos de Wilt, a television program maker who is studying art history at the University of Amsterdam. The subject for his M.A. thesis is the historical and present-day appreciation of Vermeer. I stuck to the tack in my article “Here’s not looking at you, kid: some literary uses of Vermeer,” Art in America, March 2001, pp. 104-107, 143. There is a fair amount of self-deception in the exaltation of Vermeer. De Wilt is after the personal motives of art lovers and art historians. I’m more interested in arguments.


Thursday, 8 July: One of the great days of my life. My first grandchild, Lola Renée, was born to my son Baruch and his lady, Sacha van den Borg. Lola was born at 12:16 p.m., in the little apartment in Amsterdam-West that Baruch has been working on for months in preparation for the new tenant. Loekie and I were able to come and see her that evening. I had been told and had been telling myself that it was wonderful to be a grandparent, and yet I was not prepared for what happened. I took one look at that beautiful baby and fell instantly and helplessly in love.

Friday, 9 July: Calendar conflict. The Flemish community held its annual celebration in The Hague, while in Amsterdam a reception was held for Ferdinand Dorsman, a sympathetic and helpful cultural diplomat, on the eve of his departure for Berlin. Because I had an urgent meeting in Amsterdam that afternoon, I chose for Dorsman. I found it odd that the entire top of the cultural section of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have stayed away from the Flemish event.

After the reception, I drove to Haarlem to pick up the birth announcements from Sacha’s mother Cokky du Mortier, who designed them and had them printed. Delivered them in Amsterdam, where I was able to see Lola again.

Saturday, 10 July: Another visit to Amsterdam-West, with Loekie. We promise to cool it.

Wednesday, 14 July: Excellent visit in the pouring rain to Haarlem with Navany Almazan of CODART and special consultant Eelke Boswijk, to meet with Pieter Biesboer of the Frans Hals Museum. We map out the plans for the CODART ACHT congress, to be held in Haarlem from 6 to 8 March 2005. Pieter Biesboer is the perfect partner; he fills in all the locations and arrangements that still had to be decided on.

Drinks in Felix Meritis with Dragan Klaić, cultural manager, consultant and activist extraordinaire, a native of Belgrade but like me an allochthonous Dutchman. Am surprised again that the café of Felix, one of the nicer places in Amsterdam, not large but with a grand café look and feel, with lots of space between tables and a friendly atmosphere, is always empty except when an event is taking place in the building. Dragan asks my opinion about a new interdisciplinary curriculum in Leiden and The Hague for artists and students in the humanities, but first tells me amazing stories about how certain museums in Belgrade and Zagreb came into possession of certain of their major holdings. (More about this in two weeks.) We agree on the spot to visit the current exhibition of art from the National Museum in Belgrade at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

Thursday, 15 July: A funeral in the family. Loekie’s niece Mirjam Maman, killed by breast cancer at the age of 37, is buried. Mirjam lived in a home for the retarded, where a larger service had been held the day before. The small cemetery of St. Barbara is a short distance from Baruch and Sacha’s place, where we go afterwards to see them and Lola. Mirjam would have been delighted by our grandchild. She would have sent her little presents and self-made greeting cards, which she spread around graciously for no special reason.

Dragan Klaić in front of the self-portrait of Moša Pijade (1890-1957), a Serbian artist he admires.


Friday, 16 July: Long visit to the exhibition Belgrado Parijs with Dragan Klaić, who knew some of the works and some of the artists from his years in Serbia. Dragan begins to tell me about his language, which was called Serbo-Croatian when he was growing up, but because of 1990s politics is now called Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian or some such, with an abbreviation for a name. This brings back a powerful memory of late-night lessons in Serbo-Croatian that I received from a girl I was in love with when I was an undergraduate at NYU. She lived on the Queens-Brooklyn border, halfway from Washington Square to Far Rockaway. I would go home with her whenever I could, on the way home from night classes. This was in 1959 or 1960. Her name came back to me, for the first time in decades. Sonia Severdija. “That’s an unusual last name,” Dragan said. “I have a friend named Severdija who lives in California.” He promised to ask if he is related to Sonia.

Have just performed a Google search on my old love and learned for the first time that in 1961 she married the light artist Dan Flavin, from whom she was divorced in 1979 and who died in 1996. I think I have a further lead. An artist named Sonia Flavin was included in an exhibition at the Chamot Gallery (“Jersey City’s premier showcase of eclectic contemporary”) in 1998. It cannot be coincidence that another of the exhibitors was named Nada Severdija.

Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

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