Contested 'Dutch' Space – Place, space and field

Much of the debate about the establishment of mosques, women with niqab, processes of alienation among native Dutch in migrant areas, christmas decoration and so on, pertain to the issue of ‘place’ as in physical areas that are related to humans and their practices in particular ways. Henri Lefebvre in his The Production of Space, calles for bringing together  physical space, mental space and social space. Instead of artificially separating these spaces we should acknowledge that there cannot be a way to talk about and experience of space without a process meaning-making and, therefore, there can never be just a psysical (neutral) place. Social relations and mental space are reflected in the materiality of space by ways of communicating and other practices. These forms of communicating in/over physical space and forms of practices within these space influence in turn the social relations and mental space. The mosque, or the street where it is built, the HHS school, the streets are the outcome of negotation processes involving distinct meanings, places, experiences and practices. A particular place can become imbued with a variety of local and global meanings reflected in physical, social and psychological ways that effect the every day practices, relationships, self-identifications and categorizations within and outside these places. Sometimes conflicts and inconsistencies can turn particular places into sites for an exchange of new ideas, alternatives that may be subversive (although not necessarily) and new spaces can come about or they, as Lefebvre states, they can be re-appropriated for new uses.

Let’s take street Y in city X as an example. This street and the houses were constructed in the 19th century when a lot migrants from Flanders came to city to work in one of its industries. The streetnames and nicknames for this area still reflect this ‘Flemish experience’. Nowadays however the canals in this area have been closed in the name of progress (making them into parking spaces) and the Flemish migrants are replaced by the gues workers of the 1960s and beyond and their families and descendants. Garages have been turned into a mosque and local shops of native citizens have been turned in to ‘Moroccan grocery shops’ ‘Moroccan butchers’ (later on ‘halal butchers’). Many of these shops disappear after a while, the most succesful ones attract not only Moroccan-Dutch customers but also native Dutch customers and have toned down their ‘Moroccan’ outlook (flags, products from Morocco, Moroccan/Turkish bread) and in particular on Friday afternoons one can witness a flow of ‘Moroccan men’ in djellabaa’s and women with headscarves going to the mosque. In order to go from one part of this area to another one has to cross a bridge, the most important bridge being in the street that connects this part of the city with the city’s centre. This bridge is often ‘occupied’ by Moroccan-Dutch youth who ‘just hang about’ as they say. Other people however seem to experience it as real occupation by strange, threatening forces. Moroccan-Dutch people sometimes refer to this area as ‘little Rabat’ or ‘little Morocco’ a term also used by native Dutch people but then in a derogatory manner. Another way of referring to this area, prevalent among native Dutch but also middle class Moroccan-Dutch, is saying it is a bad area. This usually refers to bad housing conditions (this area may well be the most densily populated area in the Netherlands without any large appartment buildings) and the many Moroccan-Dutch who live their. But also other moral evaluations are made: it is a dirty, messy place with rubbish (and dog poop!) everywhere, noisy young people (‘Morroccan scum’, ‘streetterrorists’) with abusive language who leave their mess everywhere, dangerous, ugly houses, men with long beards (‘hatebeards’) and robes, oppressed women with headscarves, lack of safety and what have you more. As such this area is an important part of moral geographies of people: it is out of place, out of the moral order and an area that is in need of being transformed from ‘bad’ to ‘good’.

A few years ago there was a rumour a new mosque would be built in this area. This rumour proved to be false but generated much debate. One of the participants told me that he thought building mosques, threatens his culture and identity. According to him ‘we live in the Netherlands, we are Dutch and now a strange element from outside comes in and I have to make room for that’. It is easy to criticize such an essentialist notion of culture as a homogeneous bloc (and one should) but it is important to take into account because it shows something of the process of meaning making among native Dutch citizens. And changes therein because in the 1990s a newly built mosque was often seen as a sign of integration, a willingness among Muslims to participate in this society and an expression of the change Dutch society has experienced from a relatively homogeneous society to a pluralist society (I know this is easily to criticize too). When the building of a new mosque would be done now, it would probably be seen as a sign of Islamization of society. The various meanings of any given place change over time and are influenced by global and local discourses but also by changes in the physical places that again reflect changes in wider society or even on a global scale. This may lead to conflicts, newly drawn boundaries and new fault lines of meaning and politics. But they may also lead to new initiatives in this local area. For example mosques often work on a small local scale; they are involved not so much in city activities (let alone national activities) but more often in neighbourhood activities. Other institutions in these neighbourhoods may try to accommodate to the changes in population and phsyical places by setting up dialogue activities and trying to involve newcoomers in their activities.

All these histories, practices, meanings and experiences turn this area into much more than just an area. It is an imaginary landscape imbued with all kinds of meanings and contestations of those meanings changing over time. The dynamics of space and place constitute an important research field for anthropologists as they try go grasp the significance of the connections between people’s everyday lives, materiality and place in particular contexts.

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