Finding Identity in the Netherlands

Finding Identity in the Netherlands

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

Djinn by Tofik Dibi, translated (& Introduction) by Nicolaas P. Barr (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, January 2021; 143 pages; $19.95; ISBNs: 9781438481302 paperback, 9781438481319 ebook). SUNY series in Queer Politics and Culture. Originally published in 2015 by Uitgeverij Prometheus in Amsterdam.

“You had the sense to see you were caught in a story
and the sense to see that you could change it to another one.”

—A.S. Byatt,
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye

How does it feel to be invisible, to see no reflection of yourself within a culture? Moroccan-Dutch author Tofik Dibi depicts here in heartfelt personal terms his experience with othering.

Djinn is a coming-out memoir of marginalization. In these pages, he embraces both his sexual orientation as queer and his Muslim identity, starting in childhood and working his way through the six years he was a Member of the Dutch Parliament. Dibi highlights the disregard societies can inflict, particularly on people with composite group identities.

He was twenty-six when elected on the GreenLeft party ticket to the Tweede Kamer, the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament located in The Hague. Dibi was one of seven practicing Muslims in the House at the time, but had not acknowledged he was gay.

Dibi describes a feeling he’d had all his life, calling “it” (his homosexuality) a djinn. Many cultures throughout history have incorporated such supernatural creatures. In Arabian and Muslim mythology and theology, djinn can assume humanlike forms. In Christianity, they are depicted more as devils or demons. To Dibi, the djinn possessing his body is leading him astray from what he senses are society’s approved behaviors. He hears faggot as a slur for “it.” In desperation, he asks several family members about ancient rituals to rid himself of the djinn’s influence.

It was writing that finally gave him the ability to define himself and the courage to make a public declaration. Dibi was a strong voice for the equal rights of Dutch Muslims when influential politicians labeled them “misogynists” and “homophobes” (ironic in the world’s first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001). Dibi, however, did not publicly come out himself as queer until three years after he left office, and he did so in the original 2015 Dutch edition of this book.

Geographically, the memoir moves among the Netherlands, New York City, and Morocco. It’s set in family gatherings, schools, clubs, Parliament meeting rooms, internet cafés, and chatrooms.

Translator Nicolaas Barr’s thoughtful introduction provides insightful background for Dibi’s journey. Barr, who has written about Dutch racism, leads a study abroad program in Amsterdam that “examines how Dutch identity is being refashioned by Dutch people of color amidst the supposed crisis of normative (white) Dutch national identity and ‘tolerant’ values.”

Barr explains how labor shortages of the early 1960s in the Netherlands encouraged guest workers from Turkey and Morocco to migrate. Dibi’s parents were part of the original wave, and he was born in the Netherlands in 1980. Language disparagement became common, directed to “those of foreign origin.” Islam emerged as a key political issue, along with LGBTQ rights. There seemed to be an assumption that gays and Muslims were mutually exclusive.

Nicolaas P. Barr
Translator photo by Carlotta Luke

It was “anti-Muslim sentiment” that sparked Dibi’s political engagement defending religious freedom and rights. He wanted to participate in the growing national debate driving dislike of foreigners. He became a dissenting voice to Geert Wilders, parliamentary leader of the Party for Freedom in the Dutch House of Representatives.

Dibi describes his first experience speaking in the great hall of the Dutch Parliament, and debating in rooms “named after dead people.” It took him awhile to get used to aides opening doors for him. He explains the politics of media, which inspire him to cowrite a media education bill for primary and higher education to “teach youth to be self-sufficient and well-informed in…a complex, information-based society.”

Within these activities, Dibi navigates the complexity of his three lives—public, personal, and secret. “The personal is political,” he realizes, as he’s grilled by various journalists about his sexual identity. An op-ed urges him: “Dibi, be a hero and be a champion for all of those people who want to come out of the closet but are too afraid and need a figurehead like you.”

Djinn employs as an apt epigram a quote from “Keep Ya Head Up,” a song by West Coast hip hop rap artist Tupac Shakur (The Notorious B.I.G.), who introduced social issues into the genre.

Dibi writes a foreword that sets the invisibility theme for his memoir, quoting Dominican-American author Junot Díaz on lack of reflection: “I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’” In Dibi’s confused identity, he feels most Dutch when in Morocco, and completely Moroccan in the Netherlands.

He notes that many people “don’t know any Muslims and have little insight into how we live.” Realizing the Muslim community around him believes “it” is wrong, Dibi tries to understand what a true Muslim does. To him, Islam feels like an heirloom passed down through generations. Meanwhile, his friend Mohammed questions the Koran trying to understand the words on its pages, seeing faith not as an heirloom but rather something he’s choosing for himself.

Tofik Dibi
Photo from Center for the Art of Translation

Dibi’s story of his search for self-identification resonates in the broader question: Who gets to define me? Swedish-Ugandan writer Johannes Anyuru touched on a similar perception in his novel They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears. Writing about Sweden as the Muslim child of an immigrant from Uganda and a Swedish woman, Anyuru put it succinctly: “You were Swedish if the Swedes thought you were Swedish.”

Dibi credits Stan Lee’s X-Men with helping him survive adolescence. In those Marvel comics, a mutant team protected “a world that hates and fears them for their unusual appearances and abilities.”

In a sense, Dibi personifies Magneto, the mutant who became “a radical freedom fighter in the name of his kind.” In one story, Magneto tells an antimutant politician: “…mankind has always feared what it doesn’t understand.” Ultimately, Dibi understands exactly who he is as he finally looks in a mirror without self-hatred.

Djinn is a creation tale of a search for compassion. As Tofik Dibi reaches out to “my brothers and sisters beyond borders,” releasing his inner emotions and fears, he underscores the power of a tale well told to bring disregarded people together—if they see their own images reflected.

Tofik Dibi is an author and playwright who was a Member of the Dutch Parliament from 2006 to 2012. Born in the Netherlands of Moroccan descent, he was a member of the GreenLeft (GroenLinks) party. Prometheus Books published Dibi’s novel Het Monster van Wokeness (The Monster of Wokeness) in Dutch in the fall of 2020. He studied Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, specializing in cinema. In 2019, he codirected with scriptwriter Willem Timmers a short documentary that debuted in the Netherlands called Acting Straight

Translator Nicolaas P. Barr is a lecturer in Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies of the University of Washington, where he graduated. He conducts a study abroad program in Amsterdam examining “how Dutch identity is being refashioned by Dutch people of color amidst the supposed crisis of normative (white) Dutch national identity and ‘tolerant’ values.” Barr has written about Dutch racism in The Nation. He holds a PhD in history from UC Berkeley.

Publisher: SUNY Press

SUNY Press is an international publisher of scholarly and trade books, focusing on the humanities, social sciences, and fiction. Begun in 1966 at the State University of New York in Albany, the press has an editorial board made up of faculty from its various campuses. SUNY Press is a member of the Association of University Presses.

Djinn is part of the SUNY series in Queer Politics and Cultures edited by Cynthia Burack (professor in the Department of Women’s, Sexuality, and Gender Studies at Ohio State University) and Jyl J. Josephson (professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University-Newark).

Submission guidelines for SUNY Press are available on the website

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