Kebab, Coffee & Culture
Unity in My Own Neighbourhood

by Julia Muller

At around five p.m. - with the sunset well on its way - I make my way home. Home is Utrecht and specifically Lombok, a neighbourhood west of Utrecht’s central train station.

As I walk through the tunnel to cross the train tracks, two greenly lit towers beam at me, marking the passage into Utrecht’s multicultural heart. The towers are the minarets of the Ulu Mosque. When the Mosque was built three years ago, the square surrounding it was bare and deserted. Now, the square is occupied at any hour of the day by the daily hustle and bustle of middle-aged men attending the mosque, students buying their groceries at Albert Heijn and people of all colours and ages queuing at the Kebab Factory. Although Dutch multiculturalism used to function as a successful example of integration for other European countries, it has become a controversial term referring to all that’s wrong with society nowadays.

This is my plea for the re-appreciation of multiculturalism in its purest form, taking my own neighbourhood Lombok as a role model.

Yes, it’s personal. And yes, it is therefore subjective, coming from the perspective of a liberal and privileged student. However, it might be the only convincing way to move away from a political approach and focus on the experience of daily life in the Netherlands. With the Dutch elections being a mere two weeks away, it might be productive to shed some light on the concept of ‘unity’ in terms of existing examples, rather than presumptive promises made by political parties.


Let’s talk statistics first. Lombok has some 5.000 inhabitants. Of these 5.000, 13% is of non-Dutch Western descent and 20% is of non-Western descent. Officially, both of these categories are referred to as ‘allochtoon’, which literally translates into ‘foreign’ and means someone was either born abroad or at least one of their parents was. Yet, the term ‘allochtoon’ is nowadays mostly used to indicate people of Turkish or Moroccan descent, most of whom are by now third generation Dutch inhabitants with full Dutch citizenship. Concerning colloquial terms, we haven’t come up with a fitting alternative to specify such people’s ancestry, apart from simply calling them Dutch, which in fact I’m a firm advocate of.

"It is this diversity of language, cuisine and customs that allows for cultural exchanges to take place and which result in a new blend of Dutchness"

When I say that most people who live in Lombok are ‘just Dutch’, it does not mean that I am denouncing the richness of the cultural diversity that characterises the neighbourhood. It is specifically this diversity of language, cuisine and customs that allows for cultural exchanges to take place and which result in a new blend of Dutchness. A Dutchness that in my opinion is much more likely to successfully deal with globalisation and other contemporary ‘threats’ because of its versatility and adaptability.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cultural diversity is to humanity what biodiversity is to nature; a source of innovation and creativity that is not only beneficial but also highly desirable to the future of mankind. This might sound vague, but I will try to illustrate it by taking some personal encounters I recently had, and using them as examples for what I consider to be the ultimate form of multiculturalism and unity within that diversity.

Note: I did not purposely look for these encounters; they happened naturally and in fact were the inspiration for this article, instead of the other way around.

Encounter #1 - The Pharmacy
My pharmacy is located in the heart of Lombok. On a Tuesday morning two weeks ago, I went to pick up a medicine recipe. Upon entering the pharmacy, I drew a ticket. When my number was called out, a tall man stepped forward and took my spot. Obviously, I was pissed. Some minutes later, a woman with a stroller, who was already at the counter next to the man, was told that the medicine she was picking up for her baby is not entirely covered by her insurance. She had to pay an additional 2 euros and 45 cents. I can hear her mutter that she does not have her wallet on her, thinking she would not need it. Then something happens. The man who had cut the line only minutes before turns around and kindly offers to pay for her, even though she objects. After an elaborate exchange of ‘Shukran’ (Arabic for ‘thank you’) both ways, the man and woman leave the pharmacy together, still taking in Arabic. I am left speechless, ashamed of my so-called Dutch manners.

Encounter #2 - Albert Heijn
Any Dutch person reading this has some sort of relation with Albert Heijn. Being the largest supermarket chain, it is loved by many and disliked by just as many, mainly because of its high prices. Usually, Friday afternoon is the busiest hour in the Lombok store, meaning long lines and hasty cashiers. After placing my groceries on the conveyor belt and paying, the cashier asks me whether I would like ‘Efteling stamps’ (little tickets you can stick on a stamp card in order to save for a discount for the Efteling, the Netherlands’ most famous theme park). When I tell her no, I look back and offer my tickets to a woman wearing a hijab, who’s in line behind me. Her eyes start to twinkle and while I continue packing my groceries, she tells me about her four children and how she wants to take all of them to the Efteling once she’s able to fill enough cards. All of this in perfect Dutch, leaving me to, again, embarrassedly reconsider my first impression. Together we get to 2,5 full stamp cards; only 1,5 to go! With a big smile on my face I leave Albert Heijn, knowing that four kids will have an amazing day trip really soon.

Encounter #3 - The Thrift Store
My very favourite place to go on a Wednesday afternoon is the Emmaus, a local thrift store chain that sells clothes, books, records and anything else one might need in and around the house. Wednesday is the first day of the week it opens, and it's the best day to go, because of all the new arrivals. It seems that everyone in Lombok knows this, so when I arrive the store is already packed with young men from the asylum center around the corner, Moroccan mothers with children and hipster students. Especially the women’s clothing section is overcrowded. One of the thrift store volunteers is unpacking some more newly arrived jackets. With a thick Utrecht accent she starts handing out jackets to whom she thinks they fit best, disregarding age, size and colour. There, in the aisles of the thrift store, all differences between women are overcome. All that matters is who wears the red woollen sweater best and gets to take it home. For 4 euros.

In anticipation of the coming elections, one of the Dutch public television channels is broadcasting a series called Op eigen kracht (On our own). The series aims to uncover the resilience and self-reliance of Dutch voters in different places of the Netherlands, one of which being Utrecht. Whereas in neighborhoods such as Overvecht, Ondiep and Leidsche Rijn the gap between ‘foreign’ and ‘native’ inhabitants has increased over the past two decades, Lombok is considered a ‘multicultural dream’. According to a survey done by the municipality of Utrecht, Lombok’s inhabitants view multiculturalism in their neighborhood as an asset. "Op eigen kracht" emphasized how entrepreneurship in the Kanaalstraat en de Damstraat, varying from Afghan stores to Turkish bakeries and Iraqi butchers to old Dutch pubs, supposedly is the secret to this multicultural success story. I think they are right. Who cares whether the owner of the organic deli is Iranian?! What is important is that the goat cheese he sells is tasty. The multiplicity of all these little stores makes that people choose where to shop according to quality and price, making that they naturally interact with people looking for the same thing. Buying medicine, groceries and clothing is so embedded is people’s daily lives, that suddenly the people with whom they do so are too. When this happens to 5000 people with over 40 different nationalities, it creates a natural cultural equilibrium, which - sadly - is quite unique in the Netherlands.

To me, these three encounters show the power of connecting with people who are very different from you, but at the same time similar in so many ways. What is missing in the current debate on multiculturalism and the influx of refugees in the Netherlands, is the acknowledgement that the Dutch way of doing things is not necessarily the best way. Again, we need a new conception of Dutchness, one that is less concerned with standing in line neatly and more directed at connecting the people you’re standing in line with.

What I think makes a general Dutch identity thrive in this tiny squared kilometer of urban space, is that people are not obsessively trying to label one another. Common practices such as buying groceries, drinking coffee and enjoying warm summer nights by the canal have overcome the political urgency of identifying who’s who and what’s what. In that way, I identify with Lombok’s Dutchness so much more than so-called historical forms of Dutch identity. I warmly invite anyone who hesitates to embrace multiculturalism to have a cup of Arabic coffee in the Kanaalstraat and see for themselves what the Netherlands could look like!


Julia is an are we europe staff writer interested in cultural conflict, unity and identity