“Would you marry me?” We were on a bus, in the early nineties, Portugal, part of an Inter-rail tour, and I had just been asked this question by a South African co-traveller. “I mean,” he continued, “Would you marry someone to give him your nationality?”
He seemed totally taken aback when I answered that I would. Then I explained that my father had done exactly that soon after the Second World War. So marrying someone to give him a different nationality was something natural to me.
It must have been 1946 and my father had come back from hiding. He had met Ruth, a German Jewish refugee who had survived Auschwitz. Ruth and my father’s uncle Jacques had fallen in love. Jacques, however, was still married and in the process of filing for divorce. He could not yet marry Ruth and her deadline to leave the country was approaching. The Dutch Government wanted to send her back to Germany. She obviously did not want to go back to Germany. My father married her and she became Dutch. As soon as they could, they divorced and she married Jacques.
It mattered that she was German. It also mattered that she was Jewish. She had a combined – and post WWII conflicted – identity. Where should she have gone? Why could she not just stay in The Netherlands? How come everyone was so occupied with themselves and their own survival and had little patience for ‘the others’? How come my father did have time for others? Was it because he had lost his closest relatives? And I wonder who he felt he was, what identity did he belong to? I am not sure he ever truly found himself again. I am not sure he ever belonged again.
It is a recurring theme – identity. A theme that has always intrigued me, though only the last couple of years do I explicitly dare to say out loud that I am very much a xenophile. I am truly intrigued – and often inspired – by those who are different and by different cultures.
More and more, we study abroad, work abroad, travel abroad, marry abroad. We meet ‘the other(s)’ all the time. Yet, it seems however enlightened – and experienced – we are in terms of connecting with others, those with other nationalities, other religions, other culinary desires, other peculiarities, etc. we still get influenced by the over-arching (media) discourse on identity, which seems to be one of ‘exclusion’ rather than ‘inclusion’. The beautiful African proverb ‘I am, because you are’ is unfortunately insufficiently practised.
How come so? Why is it that identity and togetherness seem to be at the other sides of the spectrum? Are our observations filtered by the framing of our own identity? How come we have not sufficiently learned to reach out and connect? Especially nowadays in this world that is so overly connected? A world in which people share their experiences, their updates, their stories with one another.
Storytelling can work wonders in this, as Elif Shafak explains so beautifully in her Ted Talk “fiction can overcome identity politics”. Storytelling can instil transformation. Through storytelling, we can try and influence the over arching negative discourse and inject it with more love and friendship. Everyone should work harder at this, through all the posts we put out. And use a language of love, a language that connects. And I would hope the media can follow suit. I believe we all should at least give it a try!
As for the South African? He was going to visit me in Amsterdam, but got ill along the way and we never met. And since those were the days without internet and social media, staying in touch was not the same as it is now. I can only hope all has turned out all right for him. I cherish this memory of him asking me the question… And I believe my instinct, if not my ability to marry someone today, remains the same today as it did then.