Tales of the unexpected: A trip through halal Amsterdam

Three of the largest immigrant communities in Amsterdam hail from Morocco, Turkey and Indonesia. (Shutterstock)
Updated 25 July 2018

Tales of the unexpected: A trip through halal Amsterdam

LONDON: Amsterdam is a city famed for its embrace of liberal hedonism. But scratch beneath the surface of its red-light district and coffee-shop culture, and the capital of The Netherlands can be an enthralling destination for halal travellers.

The vast majority of Amsterdammers are non-religious. This means, intriguingly, that the city’s largest religious group is in fact Muslims, and as a result Amsterdam is surprisingly welcoming for Muslim travellers seeking a European city getaway.

Three of the largest immigrant communities in Amsterdam hail from Morocco, Turkey and Indonesia. This has given rise to a delightful Dutch-Muslim culture that enhances this iconic city’s reputation for picture-postcard canals, classic dutch architecture, fascinating museums and art galleries, all framed by a mass of bicycles, narrowboats and trams. In fact, those willing to step off the beaten track will discover Amsterdam harbors some serious hidden Muslim travel gems.

The stunning Rijksmuseum, for example, is home to an intriguing 16th-century artifact from the Dutch Revolt, when Calvinist Holland fought for independence from the Catholic Spanish Empire. This ‘Geuzenpenning’ is a medal of the revolution’s naval forces, designed as a half-moon with the inscription ‘Liver Turcx dan Paus’ (Rather Turkish than Papist), revealing the admiration the Dutch had for the Muslim Ottoman (Turkish) empire that helped them during the revolution. In fact, some reports say that when Dutch revolutionaries breached a siege in Leiden they entered carrying Ottoman flags, and at another, in Sluis, Maurice of Orange freed 1,400 Muslim slaves held captive by the Catholics.

The medal is indicative of a longstanding Dutch interest in Islam, which has seen the religion and Arabic taught at Leiden University since 1586 and the Holy Qur’an first translated into Dutch in the 1600s. The medal will be part of the “80 Years War” exhibit later this year.

The Rijksmuseum is also home to a stunning collection of paintings by the Flemish-French artist Jean Baptiste Vanmour depicting life in the 18th-century Ottoman courts. Room 1.3 hosts a series of detailed imperial scenes, views across Istanbul and individual figures of Grand Viziers, Dervishes and many more.

Amsterdam’s Ottoman influence is most clearly seen at the Westermoskee Ayasofya camii (Western Mosque Aya Sofya). Everything about this monumental mosque in Amsterdam-West screams classical Ottoman. This stunning piece of architecture of historic imperial proportions — its 1,700 capacity is the largest in the Netherlands — aims to replicate the mosques built by masters like the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. Designed by the French-Jewish couple, Marc and Nada Breitman, it sits picturesquely on the banks of the Schinkel Canal. The Westermoskee boasts a 42-meter-high minaret, a 25-meter-high central dome and nine smaller domes that create a stunning colonnade over the main entrance. It is a dreamy, regal mirage of a place you feel you’ve seen scattered all over former Ottoman lands.

For a more up-to-date taste of Amsterdam’s embrace of Islamic culture, head to Kinkerstraat, just a few minutes walk from the Westermoskee. As local Amsterdam-West resident Lara Mazurski explained, it’s “the coolest place, where all the local Mipsters hang out.”

“It’s just buzzing in the evenings when the young Muslim boys and girls go to the gourmet food joints and hang out in the sheesha bars, especially during Ramadan. We love living around here,” Mazurski told me.

Kinkerstraat is a short tram ride out of central Amsterdam. It’s home to some of the coolest halal hangouts around, including the renowned Monopoly Burger and the Hookah Lounge, which is open late serving flavored hubbly-bubbly pipes and mocktails.

But Amsterdam’s phenomenal mix of Muslim migrants means that, even away from these hotspots, the city is blessed with diverse Halal cuisine and numerous places of worship, including the Fatih Mosque — housed in a stunning 17th-century Jesuit Church, where you pray in a Gothic nave that belongs, well ... in a church. A surreal experience, much like a visit to the hedonistic yet halal Dutch capital.

Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture

Updated 25 September 2018

Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture

  • Cirque du Soleil created a spectacular show in Riyadh
  • They paid tribute to Saudi culture and heritage

RIYADH: The circus — a place that is almost synonymous with joy and delight. Since time immemorial, circuses have been places of celebration and glee, and few as much as the premier name in the industry: Cirque du Soleil.

The show has had a devoted fan in me since 2006, when I attended a performance of their production “Quidam” and my definition of the word “circus” was turned upside-down. Their unique approach to art, performance, costumes and music has secured their status as a household name and a benchmark for all other circus shows to be measured against.

On Sunday night, Saudi Arabia’s National Day, the circus brought their incredible acrobatics to Riyadh’s King Fahad Stadium and it turned out to be a night to remember.

Prior to the event, Cirque’s Vice President of Creation Daniel Fortin offered little in the way of spoilers but hinted that we would see something the likes of which we never had before. With the promises of exclusive new acts, music, costumes and stage tricks piquing my excitement, I joined a throng of green-and white-clad spectators flooding the stadium. Performing to a sold-out crowd, the show kicked off at exactly 8.30 p.m. and the magic truly began.

Barely five minutes into the show, something stole over me as I settled into the rhythm of the music, something I saw flickering over the faces of those in the crowd around me: Recognition. We were seeing ourselves, our identity, echoed back at us, but with a twist. We saw ourselves through someone else’s eyes — someone respectful and admiring.

As a Saudi youth today, it has become an unfortunately common occurrence to face negativity from various outsiders, born of ignorance or fear. It has become dreary and repetitive to have to continually defend my people and my culture from those who have no wish to understand us.

But at this show? I saw my country once more through the eyes of an outsider, but this time, it was different. I saw my culture and my heritage lauded, celebrated, delicately fused with that tangible Cirque du Soleil flair. The attention to detail was careful, almost loving, but also daring and outlandish. It was a glorious fusion of classic Saudi aesthetics with the ethereal, bizarre beauty of Cirque du Soleil.

The symbolism was not always obvious, sometimes it was subtle, constrained to the beat of a drum or hidden in a snatch of song. Other times, it was blatant and bold, in the sloping hump of an elegantly clumsy camel costume, or the billowing of the Bedouin Big Top in the gentle breeze. And yet, unmistakeably, I felt the Saudi influences in every note of the performance. It felt like an homage, and yet it did nothing to diminish its own identity. It remained unquestionably a Cirque du Soleil performance, only below the usual circus frippery, there was a ribbon of something else that lay coiled beneath the surface. Something bright, vibrant green. Saudi green.

The spectacle rounded off with an astonishing display of fireworks, so plentiful that for a moment, the sky glowed bright as day. To me, each one felt like a promise fulfilled. A dream achieved. A miracle witnessed. Here, on my own home soil, it was the perfect tribute to a rich and vivid culture.