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The City and the Writer: In Amsterdam with Abdelkader Benali

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                    —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities



Can you describe the mood of Amsterdam as you feel/see it?

Amsterdam is the city of exiles, the place where people, dreams, things, feelings, and longings go into exile. It has been a harbor for persecuted people since time immemorial and I feel this. The orchard of canals, cul-de-sacs, rivulets, give a feeling of protection from the harsh realities surrounding us. When dawn comes, a feeling of bitter melancholy comes to mind because so much was left behind . . . to feel so lucky. In Amsterdam all people feel equal because the city is too small for anything but humanity. There is no city where the change of seasons can be so vividly felt. When autumn comes, after a long and sticky summer, she is a lady who shakes her body, and just like that, she gets rid of all her summer clothes. And the streets are literally covered with autumn leaves, yellow, brown, red, dark red. Those are the colors of Amsterdam. Crimson.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Too many, not enough. My first time in Amsterdam I lost my way on the canals. And for the first time, I felt that a labyrinth can be part of the urban landscape. The Rijksmuseum had a tunnel where people and bicycles passed through and in the middle of the tunnel a trumpet player was playing. Sad. I ran through the Amsterdamse Bos, our biggest city park, and saw big white clouds coming down like envelopes with good news in them. Rain. I would sometimes just walk the marketplace just to count the different faces I could see. So many.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I think it is its little parks, there are so many in town, some of them no bigger than a parking lot. Everywhere you walk in town these little parks are there to give pause and rest.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Definitely Cees Nooteboom, the traveler who never left town; Harry Mulisch, who lived near the Leidseplein; Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, who painted the sixties in Amsterdam in such cruel and passionate light; and Hella Haasse, who described the lives of Amsterdamese gentry families who made their fortune in the East Indies. From the younger generation I recommend the poet Mustafa Stitou, Tsead Bruinja who as a newcomer to town is making the town new. And of course, the work of Charlotte Mutsaers.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I just love running in Amsterdamse Bos, our biggest park, it feels like complete freedom without the difficulties attached.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Nieuw-West is an upcoming suburb that has a kind of strange mix of urban normality with its big villas and green everywhere . . . and this great pleasant lake, Sloterplas, where you feel like you’re in the fifties. People who live there come from every corner of the world and give it the atmosphere of being Istanbul or Tangier or Paramaribo. It’s one of the most exciting places in town.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Many! Especially the Knsm-island that looks over the river, where you can feel the strong wind and see majestic boats coming along—when there is bad weather, the island feels haunted.

Where does passion live here?

Here, people love to make jokes and don’t take themselves seriously. Everybody is protecting their secret. Quite exciting.

What is the title of one of your stories about Amsterdam and what inspired it exactly?

I haven’t written a story about Amsterdam but maybe my answers are short stories.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Amsterdam does an outside exist?”

I like the question. I don’t tend it to see it as philosophical but more practically. Every world has many insides and outsides, it depends on your practice and stamina, on whether you are able to travel through them. I am Borgesian, very Borgesian, which means that for me, opposition is a whole that can be traversed, travelled.

Abdelkader Benali is a Moroccan-Dutch writer, playwright and journalist. He has written numerous books including the critically acclaimed novel Bruiloft aan zee,  De langverwachte which received the Libris Prize, and Marathonloper.


NH’s Discovery: When we think of Amsterdam, canals come to mind (Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht, Herengracht, Singel). And bikes. Many bikes.  Oh yes, and the “coffee shops.” But Amsterdam is so much more. It has become a hub for different nationalities making it one of the most multicultural and exhilarating cities in Europe—people from Suriname, North African, Iraq. The creative arts are thriving, and so is the nightlife, with bars and restaurants in every neighborhood. The city is small—it’s possible to bike from South to North to West to East Amsterdam. Some highlights: Central Station, the NDSM wharf (many artists and galleries), Vondelpark and Dappermarkt in Amsterdam East (most culturally diverse part of the city), the Van Gogh Museum and the new Rijksmuseum is impressive.

For books in English while in Amsterdam, and a great place for open mics, book signings by authors, writing workshops, and even yoga, go to the American Book Center (ABC). Not enough literature is translated from Dutch into English. To name a few in English translation: The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (novel), Rituals by Cees Nooteboom (novel) and Amsterdam by Geert Mak, for those interested in the origins and development of the Netherlands' illustrious capital. For poetry, read the informative introduction by Dutch poet Joris Lenstra to  Jacket 40

And if you are in Amsterdam this month, don’t miss the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and make sure to check out:

Dream Homes Property Consultants by Alexandra Handal
England, 2013, color, cross-platform


Shado'man by Boris Gerrets
The Netherlands / France, 2013

Published Nov 20, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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