A Personal Journey in Intercultural Dialogue
When the Maadi Messenger editor asked me to write about intercultural friendships, I thought it would be best to write about my own experiences. I grew up in a traditional family in a traditional, homogeneous Dutch community. Nowadays, however, I have friends of all races, nationalities, and political and religious affiliations. I see that as a tremendous enrichment.
Both my parents were Dutch and Christian Reformed. Practically all the children at my primary and secondary schools were Dutch and white. My father and his family strongly believed that the State of Israel was a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. My father spoke negatively about Catholics and often told the story that when my grandfather, a motorcyclist, almost died in a traffic accident, the nearby Catholic hospital refused to treat him because he was not Catholic. In a Christian youth group, I was told never to read the Qur’an because it was dangerous.
Dutch society at the time was vertically divided into at least three groups or ‘pillars’: the Protestants, the Catholics, and the Socialists. These groups were referred to as ‘pillars,’ since each group comprised different social classes. Each pillar, or group of like-minded people, had its own newspapers, broadcasting organizations, political parties, trade unions, farmers’ organizations, schools, universities, sports clubs, etc. This segregation meant that many people had little to no personal contact with people from another pillar.
In 1974, during my formative years, I went to kibbutz Gazit in Israel. Here, I discovered people from other nationalities. Traveling around, I encountered Palestinian Christians, and I became curious about the occupied West Bank. A deeply prejudiced Israeli tried to discourage me from going there, saying that if I told Palestinians that I was Dutch, I would be killed. I, therefore, decided to introduce myself as a resident of the Benelux (the union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). I ended up in the New Askar Camp near Nablus, where the Palestinians received me with open arms and great hospitality, even though they had practically nothing. I stayed there for several days, and my hosts took me to the old market in Nablus and the fascinating community of the Samaritans, a group mentioned in the Bible. It turned out the Palestinians in the camp had no clue what ‘Benelux’ meant. When, on the third day, I had the courage to tell them what the Benelux was and why I had used that name, they completely understood.
Upon my return to the Netherlands, I went to visit Dr. Willem van ’tSpijker, a professor of Christian Reformed Theology in my hometown Apeldoorn. Dr. van ’t Spijker recommended that I look up former Dutch diplomat Daniel van der Meulen, who was 61 years my senior. Van der Meulen, a member of the Reformed Church who had twice headed the Dutch Embassy in Saudi Arabia and written several books about his experiences, was a great storyteller. In 1976, he advised me to take a trip to Egypt and introduced me to his friend Dr. El-Sayed Yassin, director of the Al Ahram Institute for Strategic Studies. He also suggested that I carry a letter from the Apeldoorn city council to the city council of Luxor, proposing the two become sister cities. I went to Egypt and was hosted by a Coptic family in Alexandria and by a Muslim family in Cairo. The visit opened my eyes to a completely new world. It led me to study Development Sociology at university and to return to Egypt year after year to see my friends. Subsequent journeys to other countries extended my horizons further. In 1979, I traveled with a group of students over land from Tunisia to Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroun, Central Africa, South Sudan, and Kenya. I was eager to meet new people, visit local development projects, and learn about other cultures.
In 1994, after working for a number of years in the Dutch emigration service, I moved my family to Egypt and became a correspondent for several Dutch news services. I quickly learned about the biases inherent in media reporting; editors select the stories they want you to research and write about. I enjoyed working for the ReformatorischDagblad (the Reformed daily newspaper), as they were interested in religion in society and left me completely free to write as I saw fit. Still, I had a very hard time with certain western political activists bent on presenting a one-sided image of Egypt who did not hesitate to exaggerate or even lie if they felt this was necessary to advance their agenda. In 1995 -1996, for example, I researched published claims that Christian girls were being kidnapped in Egypt. None of the stories turned out to be factual. Instead, I found a host of social problems. This was the beginning of my skeptical stance as a researcher and writer.
It was also the reason why I founded the Arab-West Report, an electronic magazine and database that hosts over 50.000 summary translations of articles published in the Arabic media since 1997 as well as thousands of original articles written by our student interns and myself. We receive many applications for internships, especially after former Dutch Prime Minister Andreas van Agt’s visit to our office in 2006. Since then, we have hosted over 340 student interns from at least 25 different countries from all over the world: Muslim, Christian, secular, male, and female. I love this diversity. It is our greatest treasure.
One memorable example is Dina Bouchkouch. Dina is a veiled Muslim from France. She interned in our office in 2017 at the time terrorists attacked a bus of Christian pilgrims on the road to the Monastery of St. Samuel, resulting in at least 28 deaths. Together with Chinese Christian intern Shen Shangyun Dina went to Maghagha to offer condolences to the victims’ families. Her visit deeply impressed the families, the local church, and me, for that is true compassion. Dina later applied for an internship at a Christian school and was rejected because she is veiled. This is unfair! She returned to us for a second internship in 2019 to help set up a Learning Center for refugee youth.
The majority of people seek to do good, and religion helps them by providing guidelines. Dina found these in Islam. Others find them in Christianity, in Hinduism, in humanist philosophy, or something else. People may also pursue their own goals at the expense of others, creating tensions. But no matter our race, culture, nationality, or sex, we are more alike than different. We all crave security. We all want the best for our families and children. We also want life to make sense. Humans are social beings. We find comfort in being in a community we trust. It is true that many people have radicalized, but we must try to understand their reasons and address the causes. In 2004, I participated in a Missio campaign entitled “Dare to Meet the Other.” Meeting ‘the Other’ and listening to different perspectives results in mutual understanding, reducing prejudice.
The most beautiful metaphor I have heard is from former Minister of Awfaq, Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq: “Humanity is like sailors on a ship. We must cooperate in order to sail the ship into a safe harbor. Humanity must cooperate if we want to keep earth inhabitable for our children and grandchildren.”
Read more about Daniel van der Meulen in: Cornelis Hulsman and Guus Boone, Daniel van der Meulen, October 4, 1991. Translated for and published by Arab-West Report, February 1, 2016, https://www.arabwestreport.info/en/year-2016/daniel-van-der-meulen
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