Feeling like a stranger in my own country

Grown up, that is how I felt two years ago when I started studying here in Maastricht. I was going to become independent, make new friends, party all night long and, of course do a bit of studying at the department for Translation and Interpreting at Zuyd University.

Maas river

For me this new adventure was somehow even more special because I’m in a wheelchair and have had a very protected upbringing.

What I underestimated was the time that it actually took me to adapt to this feeling of independence.
In my new house I had to learn to wait for help and live together with ten other people who had a different frame of reference in the sense that they don’t follow higher education.

I also experienced that it is not as easy as I thought to make new friends. This made me realise how attached I was to my secondary school friends I had left back home in the Gelderland region.

The first few months in Maastricht were an awful period during which I felt very lonely and insecure, as if I were a total stranger in my own country. I found myself staying indoors quite frequently watching television or playing on German online casino games to pass the time.

Limburg to me seemed very different from the rest of the country and even though I’m Dutch, it took me some time to start feeling at home here.

Language barrier
A specific aspect of living in Maastricht or Limburg is the language and culture barrier I have experienced. However unbelievable it may sound, this is possible even in such a small country as the Netherlands. Near Arnhem, where I grew up, we speak Standard Dutch, without any specific accent or dialect. But here in Limburg people speak their very own ‘language’, called Limburgish (“Limburgs” in Dutch). Since it is used on a wider scale than than an average dialect it has the status of regional language.

Even after living here for several months, the dialect of Limburg can still be quite incomprehensible for a newcomer. Things even get more complicated, because almost every town or village has its own form of dialect!

Small glossary English-Dutch-Limburgish:


There are many more examples I can come up with, but these are some of the most commonly used words. People who speak German probably notice the big resemblance between Limburgish and German. Pronunciation varies from town to town, and Limburgers can guess where a person comes from just by their accent, isn’t it amazing?

The southern attitude
Limburgers not only speak a different language, they also act differently. They tend to speak Limburgish to each other, without realising that some people in the room may not understand it. When asked, they will switch to Dutch, and apologise for speaking Limburgish but deep in their heart they seem to think that you should learn their dialect. You are the one who wanted to live here, so you should learn the language, something I still refuse because I feel it is fake for non-native Limburgers to speak dialect. This made me feel isolated in the beginning, because I didn’t understand a word of what people were saying. After a few months however, I did get better at it.

The Netherlands has highest rate of part-timers in Europe

The Netherlands has the highest rate of part-timers within the European Union (EU). This applies to both genders.


Part timers

Nearly half of Dutch working population are part-timers

In 2008, nearly half of 15 to 64-year-old Dutch worked on a part-time basis. The proportion of part-timers is much lower in other EU countries. The Netherlands is followed by Sweden with 26 percent part-timers. With 25 percent, Germany is in third place. The average rate of part-timers for the EU is nearly one in five.

Three quarters of Dutch women work on a part-time basis

The Netherlands’ number 1 position in Europe with respect to part-timers is mainly caused by the high rate of female part-timers. Last year, three quarters of working women in the Netherlands in the age category 15–65 held part-time jobs. In all other EU countries, at least half of working women had full-time jobs. On average, fewer than one in three working women in the EU held part-time jobs.

Male part-timers only made a limited contribution to the top position of the Netherlands within the EU. In 2008, one in four men in the Netherlands were working on a part-time basis. The rate for men is considerably lower than that for women. Still, the Netherlands also tops the EU list with respect to male part-timers.

Many young men work in part-time jobs

Young people and – to a lesser degree – people over the age of 50, make a significant contribution to the relatively high rate of male part-time workers: 62 percent of young workers, mostly students, hold small, part-time jobs alongside their study. The rate of part-timers among 50 to 59-year-old men is one in five. They often participate in partial pension schemes. One in eight people aged between 25 and 50 are working on a part-time basis. In the Netherlands, the proportion of part-timers is higher across all age groups than in other EU member states. This has lead to a culture of drinking, playing online casinos and general betting and a general feel of disillusionment among the population.

Dutch authorities register 809 human trafficking victims

The number of registered victims of human trafficking in the Netherlands rose last year to 809 from 716 in 2007. The number of registered victims from Hungary and China grew fastest, according to provisional figures from the Human Trafficking Coordination Centre (Comensha).

Nearly all victims are women: 763 of the 809. Among the women, 60 percent of the cases certainly involve work in prostitution or in ‘massage salons’. In 5 percent, it has been established that they were put to work outside the sex industry. Of the remaining 35 percent, no definite conclusion can be reached, but these likely also include many prostitutes, newspaper Trouw reported Friday releasing the Comensha figures.

The number of registered Hungarian victims of human trafficking in the Netherlands nearly quadrupled last year from 2007, from 12 to 45. All 45 victims are women, who have likely been put to work in the sex industry.

Trouw said the increase in the number of Hungarians was remarkable, as fewer victims actually came from other Southeast European countries like Romania and Bulgaria. “This could indicate a shift in the network of human traffickers.”

The increase in the number of Chinese – 66 women and 12 men – is according to Comensha mainly due to the rumour that did the rounds in their community at the beginning of 2008 about a Dutch general amnesty in the runup to the Olympic Games. Many Chinese reported to asylum-seekers centres. Among them, some had a story to tell indicating forced labour.

The number of Nigerian victims declined from 102 to 62. There was however a big increase in the numbers from Sierra Leone. This indicates that, as in Southeast Europe, the trade from Africa may be relocating, Trouw said.

But the number of registered victims from the Netherlands also rose markedly. As in 2007, nearly 40 percent of all victims were Dutch girls or women forced into prostitution by boys or men who first pose as their friend and shower them with presents and attention. These pimps are euphemistically called ‘lover-boys.’

Meanwhile, on Thursday, a couple from the town of Hoofddorp was arrested on suspicion of smuggling “dozens” of Philippines via the Netherlands to other European countries, police have announced. The 57 year old man and his wife, 41, are still being held. The police are not ruling out more arrests.

Source: NIS News, 9 February 2009

Cabinet adopts term ‘bicultural’ for ethnic minorities

The cabinet seems to have adopted the term ‘bicultural’ as a term for people from ethnic minorities. It has announced in a press release that “more managers with a bicultural background” should be employed by the government.

The organisation Inspiration for Integration (IVI) launched a media campaign in February 2008 to introduce the term ‘bicultural’. The usual term for immigrants, ‘allochtonen’, had acquired too many negative implications, in the view of IVI. Several leftwing parties in parliament welcomed the initiative, but it soon disappeared into the background.

However, the cabinet has now embraced the term. It decided on Friday that more women and Muslims should be employed at the ministries. “The ministers will personally make sure that the departmental targets with respect to managers with a bicultural background will be achieved.” The goal is to appoint six people from ethnic minorities as senior civil servants in each department.

Alexander Rinnooy Kan, the chairman of the Social Economic Council (SER), is chairman of the IVI jury that awards an annual integration prize. The jury also includes politicians from various political parties.

“The word bicultural is a positive counterpart for the word allochtoon,” Yesim Candam, the Turkish founder of IVI, said last year. “We used to say ‘guest labourer’, ‘new Dutch’ or ‘allochtoon’. ‘Bicultural’ is the first term that expresses the fact that two cultures are more than one!”

The term allochtoon (someone with one or both parents born abroad) was introduced in schools in the 1980s for the sake of political correctness. Since then, it has acquired a negative image, IVI claims.

Kader Abdolah: “I learned this arrogance from the Dutch”

KaderIn the interviews he’s given to the media, the Iranian born writer Kader Abdolah says that he hopes that his books will lead to a better understanding of Islam and help promote the dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.

But the views he expressed on October 29 in front of the packed audience at Maastricht University were very hard to hear for faithful Muslims like myself.

Kader Abdolah’s real name is Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani. He chose his pen name in honor of two friends who died under the Iranian regime. He fled his country as a political refugee in 1985 and has been living in the Netherlands since 1988.

Kader Abdolah writes in Dutch and his latest work is a translation into Dutch of the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book. More precisely, he not only translated the Qur’an but also revised it along the way.

Granted, he was an amusing speaker. He started off by saying that he wasn’t well prepared because he thought that he was going to be interviewed. He entertained the audience with many jokes of this kind during the two hour lecture, which he gave in Dutch.

Abdolah explained the reasons that led him to write a new translation of the Qur’an in Dutch and said that his books are always based on personal experiences. In this case, it all started when he suddenly heard a voice in the middle of the night, telling him that he had to “do something about the Qur’an.”

He began to read the Muslim holy book but found it too difficult to understand. In his opinion, this difficulty is not coincidental: “It makes the Qur’an look more divine.” But not very accessible, he thought.

He therefore decided to write a new version of the Qur’an, in Dutch, and to rewrite it in a more intelligible language.

He cut the many repetitions and also changed the order of the suras. He said that he doesn’t think that the liturgical character of the Qur’an was affected by these changes. He argued that he kept the rhythm of the text and added more beauty to it. In fact, he even referred to his translation as “the best” and joked that he “learned this arrogance from the Dutch.”

Kader Abdolah’s dream was to become a noted writer; he kept hearing a voice in his mind telling him that the impossible could become possible. Now he is an awarded author in the Netherlands. He’s received the Dutch E. du Perron prize for his literary work and on the very day of the lecture the University of Groningen announced that it would award him an honorary degree for “his contribution to the knowledge and understanding of Islam in the West.”

For many Muslims in the Netherlands however, Abdolah’s version of the Qur’an is a difficult thing to accept. In fact, the Iranian author acknowledged that he was recently told in the mosque of Gouda that “it wasn’t needed.”

As a Muslim of Moroccan origin, I understand the reasons for this rejection. For many Muslims, rewriting the Qur’an is considered as an act of disrespect towards our holy book.

A common belief among Muslims is that the prophet Mohammad received God’s words and passed them on. Because he was an illiterate man, other people wrote down his words into a book which became known as the Qur’an.

Kader Abdolah however doesn’t believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, or that the prophet was illiterate. He thinks instead that the Qur’an is made of Mohammad’s own words. Logically, he doesn’t believe in Islam either – he broke his ties with the Islamic faith when he was 15. He calls it “opium for the people”.

Rewriting the Qur’an – and making it his own – is something that Kader Abdolah says he was able to do because of his Shi’a background. Shi’a Muslims are allowed to add or omit words to create their own interpretations of the Qur’an, he explained. Abdolah said that he inherited this tradition from the Persian masters who also revised, translated and interpreted the Qur’an in their own way. “Something typical for the Persians,” he said. “The Moroccans and the Turks are not able to do something like this, because they are Sunni.”

“Well,” I couldn’t help reflecting to myself, “the great majority of Muslims are Sunni too and wouldn’t do this either.”

Listening to Kader Abdolah, I could see that he’s a man who didn’t have a very lucky past. During the time that he lived in Iran, he saw a modern country change into a strict Islamic land and people being forced into becoming Muslims. Then he had to flee his homeland because of political repression. Such events contribute to a man’s views about life and the world. No wonder that they are reflected in his writings.

Yet some of the things he said were disturbing. He called the prophet a paedophile, made fun of some Qur’anic verses – verses which are also written in the Bible, something that he did not consider. I found it strange that he made those comments. Someone with an Islamic background wouldn’t usually do this. But I suspect that publicity and media attention play a role in his case. Why else aren’t the other translators of the Qur’an as well known as Kader Abdolah in the Netherlands?

I resent the fact that once again Islam was presented under a misleading light, that of a religion for oppressors and extremists, and this time by a noted writer. It frightened me to see how the audience simply went along with it, and laughed at his jokes about the Islam.

The Muslim community in the Netherlands is continuously overflowed with unfavourable coverage from the media and Abdolah’s lecture appeared to “fit” well in a society where multiculturalisation and the Islam are often placed in a negative spotlight.

For me and my fellow Muslim friend in the audience, the evening was unfortunately another confirmation of how things are going here and everywhere. We felt insulted by Abdolah’s unjust statements, like the fact that he didn’t believe that Muslims can communicate with God without the mediation of the prophet. In our view, when Muslims read the Qur’an, they read God’s words, and when they pray, they can pray and reach God without the help of a preacher.

Yet, I didn’t have the impression that the audience thought that Abdolah was making controversial statements. Everyone seemed to accept his views and eager to have him autograph their books during the book sale that was held during the break.

After the lecture my veiled Muslim friend and I were approached by a group of Dutch listeners, who wanted to know what we thought about the speaker and how representative his book was of the Qur’an. This interest pleased me because tolerance will only gained if there is knowledge from all parties.

We told them why we disagreed with Kader Abdolah and when they asked us if we thought they should read his version of the Qur’an, we advised them to choose one of the official translations instead. They reacted very well and liked to hear our points of view because they said they also wanted to know what other Muslims thought about the matter.

In my opinion, Kader Abdolah disregarded the fact that there are strict rules governing the translation of the Qur’an and acted in an irresponsible way by writing his own translation of the Muslim holy book in such a light-hearted way. Because of this and the disputable statements he made during the lecture, I don’t feel inclined to read his version of the Qur’an.

I left the lecture with the conviction that in the world of today where people of all races and beliefs live together, it is more important than ever to respect other cultures and religions and to learn from each other. Only then will we have a better world. This is something I want to contribute to.

Top 100 Dutch traditions

From today’s edition of the Radio Netherlands Press review:

The Dutch St Nicholas holiday, which sees presents given on the evening of the 5 December, is the number one Dutch tradition.

According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Dutch Culture, the centre made a list of the 100 most-cited traditions. The Sunday edition of De Telegraaf had a photograph of Queen Beatrix hanging up a typical Dutch tea towel on a clothesline with the logo for “The Year of Traditions 2009”.

De Telegraaf writes: “It’s probably been quite some time since she hung up the wash herself. But yesterday that’s how the queen officially opened the Year of Traditions. Afterwards pupils from Hilversum followed her example and hung up 100 tea towels with the name of the tradition written on each one.”

Among the top ten traditions are Queen’s Day, eating raw herring, and serving doughnut balls on New Year’s Eve.

In the survey, people were not given examples but were asked to fill in their own ideas of what Dutch traditions are. The end of Ramadan – the sugar feast or Eid al-Fitr -came in 14th place, showing the influence of immigration in this country.

Further down the list are the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice and the Jewish day of repentance, Yom Kippur.

The tradition of cycling comes in 34th place, reading e-mails in 56th and, last but not least, the 100th top Dutch tradition is watching the 8 pm evening news.

Source: Radio Netherlands, 3 November 2008

Also: Islamic Festival Named as Dutch Tradition

The Sugar Feast, which marks the end of the Islamic fasting month Ramadan, comes 14th on a league table of Dutch traditions. The list was drawn up by the Dutch Centre for Folk Culture.

The centre (Nederlands Centrum voor Volkscultuur, NCV) asked several thousand people to put forward traditions that they considered important for themselves or for the Netherlands as a whole. No shortlist of options was drawn up in advance. The results, a top 100, were announced at the opening of the Year of the Traditions by Queen Beatrix in Hilversum.

Number one in the top 100 is the feast of Sinterklaas. This Dutch precursor of Santa Claus, celebrated each year on 5 December, is followed on the list by the decoration of a Christmas Tree. In third place is Queen’s Day on 30 April.

The Sugar Feast is surprisingly number fourteen on the list, apparently due to contributions from Muslims. Also, the circumcision of boys, which does not traditionally take place in the Netherlands, is number 74. Also surprising was the fact that the national anthem, the Wilhelmus, did not occur in the top 100.

Source: NIS News, 4 November 2008

Brazilian percussion in Maastricht with Passatempo

They can’t be missed anymore during carnival. For the past few years Brazilian samba bands have become an increasingly popular feature of our Maastricht carnival and can no longer be dissociated from it.

But what exactly are samba bands? Where do they come from? And how did they reach our city?

To learn more about this phenomenon I speak with three members of Passatempo, my favourite samba band in Maastricht. Annemieke Brekelmans, Mark Teunisse and Ron Erkens are very enthusiastic in answering all my questions.


Especially Mark, who joined Passatempo in 2001, impresses me with his tremendous knowledge of the various styles of samba music. Besides being a member of Passatempo, he is also one of the “ritmistas” of the Casa de Samba in Tilburg which plays authentic samba music from Rio de Janeiro. He is obviously addicted to it! He not only plays samba instruments like the caixa, tamborim and repinique, but also the piano and the guitar.

Ron Erkens has been a member of Passatempo since its founding in 1997. He is currently the leader of the band and plays the surdo and repinique.

As for Annemieke, she started her career in samba music in 2000 with another samba band called Entusiasta but she switched to Passatempo in 2004 where she plays instruments like the surdo, timba, tamborim and agogo.

The excitement of samba music
Samba music was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the beginning of the 20th century out of cultural influences and traditions brought over by former African slaves. It became the most important Brazilian rhythm, and it is played in many different forms such as Samba Batucada and Samba Reggae.

Mark eagerly starts explaining: “Samba Batucada has a fast tempo, it is more exciting and cannot be expressed in musical notes. You can learn it only when you already have a lot of experience and the “right feeling”. For this you must be willing to practice a lot. Only then you can “feel” what to play and when to play it.”

“Samba Reggae, on the other hand, is the slower variant of samba and can be written down on paper. Therefore it is easier to learn. That’s the reason why we mainly play Samba Reggae.”

Mark tells me that other modern music styles like funk, drum ‘n bass, dance etc. also influence the band’s repertoire, but as he embarks on a description of the different samba styles I have to stop him because it gets too complicated for a non-expert like me!

I do understand however that Passatempo tries to distinguish itself from other samba bands by developing its own sound. About five typical pieces were written by Eric Janssen and Michiel Westerhuis, and two others by George de Beer. Too bad they are not members of Passatempo anymore.

Naked Netherlands

JointWhether it’s their first or last question, there is one thing my American friends always ask about my life here in the Netherlands.

I let them down gently.

“Well, there are five coffeeshops on my street…”


“…But I haven’t been inside any of them.”

“Oh … But isn’t it legal there?”

“Well, it’s not legal, it’s decriminalized… Anyway,” I take a deep breath and try to come back strong. “I went to a nude beach!”

“Woah! Cool!!”

The Maasplassen
As often as I write home about the daily delights of working in Europe, learning Dutch (een beetje), trying Indonesian food and re-learning to ride a bike, the tale of my accidental discovery of the Maasplassen seems to generate the most intrigue.

And more predictable questions.

The practice of being naked in nature, or naturism, always seems like big news to my American friends. But it’s not foreign to Dutchmen.

According to a study commissioned by the Dutch naturist federation, NFN (Naturisten Federatie Nederland), one in nine Dutchmen practice nude recreation at least three to five times per year.

The Maasplassen, one of the most prominent places to practice naturism in Maastricht, boasts around 290 members, said Rob, a Maastricht teacher and one of five volunteers working for the Maasplassen. On a warm day, he said, the Maasplaasen gets about 300 visitors per day.

The Maasplaasen, which is open whenever the temperature reaches 20 degrees, will hold a free open house from 11 am until 4 pm on 8 June. Anyone who is interested in naturism and the Maasplaasen is invited to visit and ask questions. A membership to the Maasplaasen costs EUR 60 per year, which includes a discount pass to other places for naturist recreation and a membership to the magazine of the NFN.

But anyone may have access to the pleasant river-side knolls of the Maasplassen for EUR 5 per day. The 500 meters of beach, part of the Pietersplas nature reserve, include a café with drinks and snacks, showers and storage for beach chairs. The strand is discreetly positioned, with trees, shrubs and grass protecting nude sunbathers from public view.

As long as spots for nude recreation – which may include beaches, camping plots, pools or even private residential gardens – are sheltered, nude recreation is permitted, said Bernd Huiser of the NFN.

And if you really want to make sure it’s OK to ditch your Skivvies, have a look at Article 239 of the Dutch penal code. This law allows for local authorities to designate grounds for public nude recreation.

“So, did you actually get naked?”
My Italian housemate and colleague Elisa Delaini and I discovered Maastricht’s nude beach on a late August afternoon, just two months after I arrived in Maastricht. We were pedaling south along the River Maas looking for a grassy strand of beach we’d been told existed about 20 minutes from the city center.

Our Dutch wasn’t good enough to realize if we wanted to show off our swimming suits instead of our birthday suits, we should have kept pedaling.

So we made our way through a parking lot and walked our bikes onto a scenic grassy trail, the Maas hidden behind some prairie-like foliage and trees. We glimpsed some seemingly wild horses and congratulated ourselves on finding such a pretty place to spend a warm Saturday afternoon.

Between Two: Selexyz Dominicanen as Church and Bookstore

Cathedral-fatigue. Many visitors to Western Europe know the feeling all too well. The Duomo in Florence, Notre Dame de Paris, the Kölner Dom, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – the list goes on and on and is itself impressive, even if not exhaustive. Luckily for the afflicted, a refreshing surprise awaits those who head to lovely Maastricht.


Selexyz Dominicanen stands tall in the center of the city. A 13th century gothic church, it offers its visitors a breathtaking high ceiling, a majestic nave, grand ornamentation, and an opportunity to worship: not at the great altar of God, but at the many altars of literature.

Recently rated the world’s “fairest bookshop” by the UK’s highly-regarded Guardian newspaper, the Dominicanen has quickly become one of Maastricht’s tourist attractions. “After the Guardian article, this place has been a madhouse,” remarks William Remmers, General Department Head of the store.

Remmers recently met with a certain Crossroads reporter to answer a few questions about the church, the bookstore, and their shared history. We sat in what was once the sanctuary of the church, and where now buzzes a Coffeelovers café. “You have to mention Coffeelovers,” he insists. “They are a small Maastricht-based coffee store that sells pretty much the best coffee in the world.”

The bookstore fits almost snugly between Maastricht’s two dominant squares, the Markt and the Vrijthof. The renovation project was led by Selexyz, a large Dutch bookstore chain, in collaboration with the city council of Maastricht.

Selexyz Dominicanen opened, to some medieval fanfare in November 2006. It was a joint development project with the adjacent and also recently-renovated Entre Deux shopping center. “Entre Deux,” which means between two in French, represents the site’s location between the two squares.

The Dominican friars began building their church in 1267, and it was consecrated in 1294. It endured through Maastricht’s often turbulent religious history for exactly five centuries until, in 1794, post-revolutionary French forces annexed the city and expelled the Dominicans. The French used the church for religious purposes for a little over a decade and then converted it to a warehouse.


“[The French] cavalry used it for their horses. Since then, it hasn’t really been used as a church,” notes Remmers. “It’s been multiple things: bicycle storage; a place to take exams for classes; there have been boxing matches here; reptile and amphibian shows; Christmas markets; it was even used as a second-hand book salespoint. It hasn’t been a church for over 200 years.”

If its use as a bike storage and Christmas market do not feel shocking or Dutch enough, Remmers reveals that “during some periods, it was used as a place for Carnaval parties! A lot of people who come here say that they have been here when they were really drunk or that they met their wives here. They drank beer, partied, and did whatever people do during Carnaval.”

Emile Ramakers, library historian at the Centre Ceramique and co-author of Dominicanen: geschiedenis van kerk en klooster in Maastricht (trans. The Dominican: history of the church and monastery in Maastricht), explains: “The church was restored around 1910, and then it was no longer a storage room. It was a big empty space with a flat floor in the center of the city: a perfect place for festivities. They installed an organ and used it as a music hall. It’s also true that students from the nearby school [which was in the space now occupied by the Entre Deux shopping center] used it to take exams. And from the 50s up until the late 90s, it was also used for Carnaval.”

A foreign visitor might wonder if such odd reclassifications provoke a backlash from the Dutch public. “I think the bookstore is beautiful, and it has really become an attraction in its own right for Maastricht,” says Metka Hercog, a Ph.D. student in the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. “But I do think that there are certain things that would not work well in a former religious space such as a church. There is a line that should not be crossed.”

It seems that the Dutch have a recent history of approaching this line, but most feel that they do not cross it. The Selexyz bookstore is not alone as a secular institution housed in a converted church. Maastricht’s own Kruisherenhotel offers visitors luxury accommodations in the architecture of a former monastery. Furthermore, there are churches in Rotterdam and Nijmegen that have been transformed into housing projects by the city councils.

“In the last few years, religion [in the Netherlands] is declining, and a lot of churches are abandoned. People still think that they should serve a decent purpose. Of course, there are always some things you can do with a church and some things you can’t do. If you wanted to sell erotic products here, I think most people would protest,” Remmers reflects, “although I never heard people complaining about this being a bicycle storage or a place to party during Carnaval.”

Still, Selexyz Dominicanen represents the first project in the Netherlands to turn a church into a bookstore. And, in fact, this conversion has been beneficial to the cultural heritage of the site.

The project team has conducted considerable restoration on the ceiling paintings: “One of the things we had to do was to clean them up,” says Remmers. “What you can see now is what could be rescued, so to speak. Before, you couldn’t even tell there was a fresco. People worked on the ceiling for months – I think it was a year – to clean it up as it is now.”

One indication of the great care with which the renovation was undertaken is perhaps the time the project took. Selexyz made its proposal in 2002, and worked with the city council of Maastricht and Entre Deux for the next four years before its opening in 2006.

This care is furthermore illustrated by the architectural design of the site: “You have to consider a lot of things,” says Remmers. “First of all, it’s a church. Second of all, it’s also a monument. So you have to treat it with care. Everything you see here stands alone in the room. It doesn’t come attached to the walls. The cabinets where we hold our books all stand aside from the walls.”

The site itself asserted its monument status when, during renovation, a small bone was found just under the floor. “And when you find a bone, someone says, ‘this has some archeological significance, and we need to study this further.’ So they rip open the entire floor and they dig out everything they can find. Because, of course, this is a church and people were buried here. You can still see the gravestones lining the floor. And they have to know who it was and catalogue every little bone they find. And after that, they just dump it back, and you can finally put in the floor.” Remmers adds, “That slowed us down a couple months.”

And restoration is ongoing. Atelier Limburg is currently working on a mural on the northern wall. Ramakers notes that it is an exciting and extremely significant project: “The whole thing is very large: about seven meters high. More importantly, the mural is dated 1337 and is believed to be the earliest depiction of Thomas Aquinas.”

The Selexyz Dominicanen also hosts a variety of cultural events in its impressive space. For its 2006 opening, popular Dutch performer Herman van Veen did a show for about 300 people. More recently, on 13 January 2008, local artist Mine Stemkens gave a multimedia poetry presentation, with over a dozen people reciting her poetry accompanied by a cellist and performance lighting. Curtains from the event, with textual excerpts, continued to hang throughout the bottom floor of the bookstore for weeks thereafter.

The bookstore has generated much buzz in the online world. Crossroads’ photo feature on the opening of the store from the autumn of 2006 remains its most-viewed page. In addition, an Internet search reveals that there is also a good deal of interest from Japan. Remmers witnesses the manifestation of this popularity, noting, “[Japanese tourists] come in busloads in April and May. And they all go to the children’s section; they all want to take a picture with “Nijntje” [the popular Dick Bruna cartoon character also known as Miffy],” adding that Selexyz has not made any deliberate attempts to publicize in Japan.

A concern about the environmental effect of heating such a large space was also raised through a comment on Crossroads. Addressing this issue, Remmers is reassuring: “You may be surprised to learn that we don’t actually heat up the place. The only heating we have is in the floor, but that’s only minimal. It’s not like we’re trying to keep it warm here. During our busiest moments, there may be four-to-five hundred people walking here. So, that is also a lot of heat. Of course, there’s machinery running and lights burning, but there’s not some huge heat source that we use to heat the place. In fact, during the summer, we had a problem that it was too warm here.”

One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that the building is partly made of marl, a clay-based material that absorbs heat. “It’s very funny to see that when people arrive here in the summer, they think: it’s a church; it’s probably quite cool,” muses Remmers. “But it’s not; it’s actually rather warm.”

Asked about the Dutch reading habits, Remmers explains, “I think that the Dutch people like to read very much; they’re very versatile in their reading. The crime novels are very popular.” He adds, “Our English section sells very well. I think it has to do with a lot of people coming from Maastricht University who tend to read a little more in English.”

The Dutch, the students, and the expatriates certainly constitute a unique and vibrant reading culture in Maastricht. Appropriately, they all now have an equally splendid place to congregate.

By Amrit Dhir

Amrit Dhir is pursuing a masters in Media Culture at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Originally from Los Angeles, he received his bachelors degree in International Studies from Emory University in Atlanta.

Related article: Selexyz Dominicanen opens in Maastricht, November 2006

Acknowledgment: The black and white photographs have been reproduced from Dominicanen: geschiedenis van kerk en klooster in Maastricht (trans. The Dominican: history of the church and monastery in Maastricht), with the kind permission of Emile Ramakers, library historian at Maastricht’s Centre Ceramique and co-author of the book.

For more information about the Dominican Church and its renovation, visit www.heemschut.nl and www.monumenten.nl (in Dutch only)

The ‘Bokkenrijders’: Ghost riders in the Limburg sky

In the 18th century, while most of Europe was shaking off centuries of superstition and beginning to prepare for the age of reason, the lands which now form the Dutch and Belgian regions of Limburg were terrorised by hordes of flying devil worshippers.

These mysterious robber bands met in caves or at isolated roadside chapels. Riding through the nightly sky on the backs of big black goats, they plundered farms and churches.

The ‘Bokkenrijders’, or ‘Goatriders’, owned the night throughout most of the 18th century, until they were finally brought to justice by brave and god-fearing officers of the law. This is a story that practically everyone in Limburg knows to this very day.

The Goatriders’ crimes
The story of the Goatriders is quite unique in the annals of crime. Not in the least because historians can’t yet agree on what exactly happened.

Hidden beneath two centuries worth of folklore and speculation some facts nevertheless emerge. The robberies and thefts attributed to the Goatriders certainly took place, as a visit to the historical archives in Maastricht easily can prove.

Also, between 1741 and 1794, a great number of locals were executed in present day Dutch and Belgian Limburg, accused of being members of these robber bands.

Transcripts of interrogations have survived in which suspects actually confessed to committing acts of sacrilege in churches and flying on the backs of goats, aided by the devil.

But the history of the Goatriders is really about the interpretation of historical events. We can’t take these simple, yet deceptive facts at face value.

As far as historians can tell, it all began with a string of small burglaries in the area around Kerkrade in 1741. When these crimes, which coincided with a surge in the number of wandering vagabonds in the area, were followed by a series of increasingly violent attacks on farms, as well as thefts from churches, local authorities came under a lot of pressure.

Unable to lay hands on the vagabonds, who disappeared into neighbouring lands after committing their crimes, they focused their attention on the local unwanted elements of society: the poorest inhabitants of Limburg, who often had to steal food or firewood to survive.

Arrests were made following a burglary in 1741 and the authorities of Kerkrade tried to blame all the unsolved robberies on these prisoners.

Necessary confessions were obtained through various instruments of torture, which were first applied with a certain degree of caution, according to the laws of the time, but later with diminishing restraint.

More and more prisoners, succumbing to the pain and the relentless questioning of their accusers, started ‘confessing’. Too often they were pressed until they would call out names, most likely of innocent relatives, friends, neighbours. Prisoners would later often withdraw these ‘confessions’, but to no avail.

The number of prisoners grew rapidly, filling dungeons well over their capacity. The authorities, in the mistaken belief that they were dealing with an enormous widespread robber band, started panicking and began intensifying their persecution of the ‘godless’ criminals.

Mass executions
Most of the prisons where the Goatriders were locked up can still be visited today. Castles like the ones in Herzogenrath and Hoensbroek, the cellars in the basement of Maastrichts’s Tourist Information Centre, the prison tower next to the Saint Pancras church in Heerlen and the museum on Valkenburg’s Grotestraat (where a plaque commemorating the Goatriders’ trials can be found today)… all these places, and many more, were crammed with prisoners.

Devoid of hope or any rights to legal counsel, the accused awaited the tragic ending that was in store for them.

When the public executions began, widows and children were cast out into the streets with empty hands, and the houses and all the possessions of the condemned were auctioned off to the benefit of their judges. Those who died in prison, or took their own lives, were hanged upside down from the gallows before being unceremoniously buried in the ground underneath.

The executions soon became widespread and many fled in fear of being accused. More and more people however began to notice strange inconsistencies.

Condemned prisoners screamed out their innocence at the crowds before being silenced forever. Victims of robberies often reported being assailed by small groups of four or five men, which didn’t stop the authorities from hanging between 40 or 50 men and women for that same crime. The amount of money the ‘robbers’ gained from their robberies, according to their confessions, often far exceeded the amounts actually lost by the victims.

In hindsight it’s easy to see these inconsistencies as a result of the unreliable methods by which the confessions were obtained.

If one thing is clear about the Goatriders, it is the fact that a great number of people must have met violent, degrading deaths while being completely innocent of any crime. Indeed it is quite likely that the Goatriders’ bands as such never even existed outside of the human imagination.

Flying goats
In several cases the brutality of the tortures inflicted upon prisoners, as well as the righteous indignation of over-zealous interrogators, mirrored those witnessed during the European witch trials of earlier centuries.

So maybe it’s not surprising to find out that a number of prisoners who were pressed too hard started making strange, hallucinatory confessions that bore uncanny resemblances to various types of folktales about witches.

Flying goats

Confessions about nocturnal meetings and the taking of sacrilegious oaths at roadside chapels, in which the robbers gave their souls to the devil, were of the greatest interest to the authorities who would then defend their brutal actions by claiming that the prisoners had sworn to secrecy. The ‘Goatriders’ oath’ became a standard subject during the interrogations and sometimes led to strange confessions about flying around the nightly sky on the backs of goats.

Even in those days the writing of the Goatriders’ history was a pick-and-choose affair, and the authorities stopped short of taking the flying aspect seriously.

These confessions did, however, cause enough of a stir among the public to have a lasting impact on the folklore of Limburg.

Starting around 1773 the word ‘Bokkenrijders’ (Goatriders) started popping up in several written sources describing the trials.

The executions came to an end when the ground of Dutch Limburg was saturated with blood and the horror had just become too great, leaving only bereaved and homeless families and nameless bones in the ground underneath the gallows.

The word ‘Bokkenrijders’ made its way to Belgium in 1773, where the trials flared up even more violently and a great number of people died at the hands of puritanical judges like the notorious drossaard Clercx from Overpelt.

In the end about 450 people died as a result of the Goatriders’ trials, more than the approximately 120 people executed during the witch trials in Limburg, which took place during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

But the nightmare didn’t end there.

The public executions had been designed as grisly spectacles that were meant to disgrace not only the condemned, but their families as well.

These measures proved somewhat more effective than the authorities may have intended, because small communities have very long memories. In fact, for the past 200 years being a descendant of an executed ‘Goatrider’ was the most unfortunate stigma that could be attached to an inhabitant of Limburg.

A contributing element was the fact that status changed very little in the course of time in the villages of Limburg. High positions were passed on from father to son for many generations, while the families who were poor in the 18th century remained so in the following centuries.

‘Goatriderblood’ was a derogatory term by which many a disreputable family was put into its place. Unsurprisingly, many historical records relating to the Goatriders have gone missing because of desperate people trying to clean their family history.

The first books that were written about the Goatriders didn’t improve the situation. In the 19th century the partially remembered historical events and oft repeated folk tales provided some local writers with material for romantic novels.

For a while there was a bit of a Goatrider renaissance in Limburg. Potboilers with increasingly implausible, highly melodramatic plots were churned out, aimed at barely literate working class readers.

The Goatriders became more evil than ever; portrayed as devil worshippers who practised obscene rites in the caves around Valkenburg and terrorised the countryside. These highly dramatic stories, such as De Bokkenryders in het Land van Valkenberg (1845) by Pieter Ecrevisse, Het Valkennest (1876) by Lodewijk Janssens and De geheimzinnige dokter-Rooverhoofdman (1869) by Adolf Mützelburg, set in the romantic landscape of Limburg, delighted the first tourists, who were shown all sorts of sites more or less associated with the Goatriders.

Some of these, like the popular hermitage at the top of the Schaelsberg near Valkenburg or the dungeon of castle Hoensbroek, did feature prominently in the Goatriders’ history, either as sites that were robbed or as prisons, while for others, like the caves of Valkenburg, the connection is somewhat more dubious. In fact, it’s likely that the association of these robber bands with the marlstone caves, where they are immortalised in at least two wall paintings, didn’t begin until the late 19th century.

Several local amateur historians, like Juliaan Melchior, a Belgian school inspector, and Henry Pijls, the mayor of Schinnen in Dutch Limburg, were disturbed by these developments and tried to set the record straight by writing serious books about the Goatriders’ history. But these writers were the literate inhabitants of the villages – priests, mayors and descendants of judges – who infused their works with local prejudice.

Goatriders remained evil fiends and their relatives infamous, which is why these writers were careful not to reveal full surnames in their books, preferring to use initials until the early 1970s, even though their readers knew very well, through village traditions, who they were writing about.

It took the enormous impact of World War II to upset the old ways enough for the Goatrider stigma to finally start dying off.

Revolution and rehabilitation
In some cases the fanatical way in which Goatriders were interrogated was obviously inspired by a growing fear among the higher classes of revolutionary tendencies among the populace.

The storm that was to become the French Revolution was no more than a dim shadow on the historical horizon at the time that the Goatriders were being executed, but nevertheless there already existed all over Europe secret societies who, inspired by the works of the writers of the Enlightenment, were dreaming of better days to come.

And indeed, we find in some documents statements from prisoners describing utopian fantasies of a better world that would come into being through violent means. It is partly because of these intriguing remarks that all restraints on the use of torture were sacrificed, with disastrous results.

After World War II several researchers started focusing on these particular confessions, offering a new interpretation of events. Apparently there was more to the Goatriders’ story than met the eye. Writers like Bernard Bekman and Ton van Reen penned successful novels in which the Goatriders were an early revolutionary band that was practising for the upcoming revolution by sacking farms. They were led by the mysterious physician Joseph Kirchhoffs, who was executed in Herzogenrath in 1772.

This theory, and the heroic robbers’ swashbuckling adventures, did much to rehabilitate the descendants of the executed, and today many a Limburger is proud to say he’s a descendant of a Goatrider! After all: didn’t the robbers band steal from the rich to feed the poor?

Today, the tragic events of the 18th century resonate in the landscape of Limburg and the collective memory of its inhabitants as harmless folklore. In places like Schaesberg, Heerlerheide and Herzogenrath we can spot statues of masked and cloaked picaresque figures seated on the backs of goats.

Though not very popular with the tourist board, the Goatriders are immortalised all over Limburg. Café signs, street names, a well in the Castle gardens (Kasteeltuin) in Oud Valkenburg… One can even follow a bicycle route devoted to their history.

Whether innocent victims of fanatical judges, organised criminals or early revolutionary bands, the Goatriders are inextricably linked with the history and identity of the Limburger. No longer associated with shame or superstition, they are now the symbol of the free willed inhabitants of Limburg and have become, in spite of what historians may have to say about it, the region’s very own Robin Hoods.

By Reggie Naus

Reggie Naus is a Dutch writer/freelance journalist with a special interest in folktales and history. He is the author of the book ‘De Vliegende Hollander: Biografie van een spookschip,’ which explores the legend of the ghost ship ‘The Flying Dutchman’. He has also written a study of a legendary 17th century robber in ‘Zwartmakerij in het Land van Ravenstein’. He is currently working on his first novel. His website can be found at www.reggienaus.com .