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Leiden: Living the Poems of Tolerance
Jul 1, 2015

The events of early January, 2015, in Paris, France, have left many people angry, confused, repulsed, and afraid. The supposed "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam is now on everyone's lips in Europe more than ever - and perhaps understandably so. Yet a recent visit to Leiden, Holland, gave me inspiration to think that the West can share the world with Islam - not as enemies, but as neighbors living in one garden.

Leiden is a small picture-perfect postcard Dutch university town, full of canals, cobbled streets, windmills, high-roofed 17th century houses, cheerful blond girls whizzing by on bicycles, imposing churches, and markets full of tulips and aged cheese. If Hollywood needed a stage for a film about Holland, it would be here. Yet this is no stereotypical Dutch town: Leiden is also a city unique in Europe, for it has a longstanding relationship with the Arabic and Muslim world. If there was anywhere I could feel the potential of human endeavor among peoples, it would be here.

On a bright, sunny Saturday morning at the end of January, I visited the bustling market and crossed bridges over canals, discovering the back streets, courtyards, and narrow alleys of this romantic town. The Mayflower pilgrims set forth to America from here; Rembrandt grew up here and went on to paint the heartbreak of humanity in oils; fellow Leiden painter, Jan Steen, captured the exuberance of existence in his. I ducked into the local public library for a visit, and when I stepped out the door, I came face to face with a brick wall covered by a mural written in Arabic script. This was the "Wereldwinkel" (fair trade shop.) The mural was a poem written by Nasir Kazmi (1925-1972) in Urdu, an important South-Asian language with over 250 million speakers in India, Pakistan, and other countries, and which uses Arabic script. I soon learned that it is one of the some 100 poems written by international poets that grace walls throughout the city: Shakespeare, Neruda, Sugawara no Michizane, Verlaine, Reverdy, Sapho, and William Carlos Williams all have their words immortalized in their native languages and scripts on high for all to contemplate as they pass. As I wandered along the streets of the city, I took delight in discovering many poems surprising me in unexpected places, and I even found one in Turkish, written by Fakir Baykurt (1929-1999). Yet, I could not help but wonder why a poem in Arabic had been set in such a prominent place.

I soon learned that this was but the tip of the Oriental iceberg. For over 400 years, Leiden has been deeply involved in Arabic studies, and the Islamic world has played a significant part in the history and culture of this European city. In 1575, stadtholder William of Orange granted Leiden the first university in the Northern Netherlands. A few years later, in 1613, the gifted linguist Thomas van Erpe (1584-1624) - better known by his Latinized name, Erpenius - became the first occupant of Leiden University's chair for Arabic. The decision to create the position was taken in 1599, when the University was just 24 years old. In our world of jet travel and instant internet globalism, it is hard for us to realize that in the days of 16th century Europe, the Oriental world was still akin to outer space: manuscripts, printed books, and savants were rare - only a few handful existed in Europe - and lexicons and grammars were unheard of, so it is impressive that the University of Leiden took this initiative. Such a daring move was all the more impressive because wars, starvation, and plague had left 1/3 of the city's population dead. Leiden was fighting for its life, and during these difficult days they turned to a light from the east as a beacon of hope, and not as a scourge of destruction. Could our world, in January 2015, think the same way? Erpenius, after learning Arabic in Paris from an Egyptian Copt and a Spanish Muslim, dreamed of setting sail to Istanbul to study Oriental languages, but he never made it. He published an Arab grammar book, which remained in use until the 19th century and established Leiden as the center of Arabic studies in Europe: students came from all over the European continent to study here. He spent his last years translating the Qur'an into Latin, but unfortunately never completed it, as he died of the plague in 1624 at the young age of 40. More than four centuries after Erpenius was appointed, Leiden is still the center for Arabic studies in the Netherlands.

The first recorded Muslim to live in Leiden was a North African named Omar Boek, probably from Morocco, who settled here in 1596. As every good Muslim strives to be, he was charitable: it is recorded that he donated money to help the poor by rebuilding a local convent. Why he came here we do not know, but he must have cut an exotic figure as he strolled along the canals, and I often wonder if the young Rembrandt ever crossed his path.

Indeed, since the beginning of the 16th century, Leiden's scholars, businesses, and citizens have used their knowledge of the Islamic world to make Leiden a culturally and economically richer city. The creation of the chair for Arabic was done for pragmatic reasons, motivated by the Dutch logic for commerce and trade. The teaching of Arabic would benefit the Netherland's commercial activities, especially in Southeast Asia, where the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. It was not just commerce, however, that motivated this move, for the study of Arabic allowed the University to put itself on the European map of academic excellence and allowed philologists to better understand and teach others of the human achievement as witnessed by history and other cultural viewpoints. Learning Arabic allowed students to access Arab sapientia, or wisdom. The ability to read Arabic texts in the original offered a gateway to the Arab's exceptional contributions in the fields of medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and geography, and gave insight to a civilization longer lived than that of Rome. It opened a door to a rich and extensive world; a provocative world of expanded and arresting knowledge.

In addition, printers and publishers clustered around the university scholars. The oriental collections of the University Library are some of the most impressive in Europe, but there is more in Leiden: it is the home of the international publishing house, E.J. Brill. Say the world "Brill" to an Orientalist and you will see his face light up and hear the awe of admiration in his voice. Brill is, quite simply, the most erudite publishing house in the field.

The first printer of Arabic in the Netherlands was a certain E. J. Brill of Leiden, whose business became known in the publishing world for their ability to type set and print many Oriental and uncommon languages. Brill focused on Orientalist materials in Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Malay, and Japanese. The famous Encyclopedia of Islam is one of the highlights of this house, first printed from 1913-1938 in 4 volumes and supplements. In the 1960's Brill moved its modernized printing activity away from the original building on the Oude Rijn (Old Rhine Canal), and the type-setting presses and blocks of 5,100 characters in the famous "Brill Typeface" offering a complete coverage of the Latin script with the full range of diacritic characters needed to display any language correctly were shut down - but do not fear, the typeface is now available for downloading for free on the Brill website.

In architecture, too, you can discover traces of the Islamic culture in Leiden. Walk down Leiden's main street, the Breestraat, and you will see at the top of the V-D emporium an impressive piece of sculpture in the tympanum, known as the Guilded Turk. The carving comprises a bust wearing a turban, reigning above the house of two merchant brothers, Jan and Adriaen Le Pla, who had made their wealth primarily through trade in the Levant. The brothers even lived in Istanbul at one point. This gilded figure expresses the longstanding commercial relationship between Leiden and the Middle East. Look closely and you will discover the story of their business: Neptune, the god of the sea, is at the left, and Mercury, the god of trade, is on the right. Mercury coddles a bundle of 'grein' or 'Turkish cloth' under his arm, a fabric produced using either silk or angora wool, as hinted by the Angora goat peeping from behind his feet. Angora wool was shipped from Ankara to Smyrna (Izmir) to Leiden, where it was combined with European wool, dyed and processed in 7 different guild halls. This cloth was exported to Europe and even back to the Levant, making rich not only the merchants of Leiden, but also those of Ankara. Peasant goat herders in Anatolia made the Burghers of Leiden the richest men of Holland, all from the hair of a Turkish goat.

You can also look up to the top of the facade of Leiden's monumental City Hall, and notice a curious embellishment on the edge of the roof: yes, you are right; those are alems, the crescent moon finials seen on every mosque in Turkey. It is believed that the crescent moons are there in reference to the Dutch Protestant protesters who rebelled against the Spanish Crown in 1574, and who held as their motto "Rather Turkish than Papist!" Led by William of Orange, these rebels affirmed that they would rather become Muslim subjects than remain subjects of the Catholic King of Spain, for they had observed that the Ottoman Turks under Selim II were more tolerant of other religions than Catholicism was at the time, an attitude perhaps not held by all the current European Common Market leaders today.

It is not just in books and commerce and architecture that Leiden formed bonds with the Middle East, but also in botany. In 1587, Leiden University decided to create a medicinal herb garden and teach botany. A botanist named Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) accepted the University's commission to create the garden. When the Flemish diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) returned from the Court of Suleiman the Magnificent with a tulip bulb in his saddlebags, it was to Clusius that he turned. In Vienna, he passed it on to Clusius, who was at the time the prefect of the Austrian imperial garden. When Clusius took up an appointment at the University of Leiden in 1593, he planted that bulb in the botanical garden of the University. His detailed planting lists have made it possible to recreate his garden, and a small, fenced-in area at the entry of the Horus Botanicus Garden honors the spot where it was planted, next to a statue of the legendary horticulturist. Thus bloomed the first tulips in Western Europe, and as the story goes, the rest is history. The tulip became much sought after by collectors, and ultimately the tulip market got completely out of hand, with tulip bulbs changing hands for astronomical prices. Tulipmania reached its peak in 1636-37, after which the market collapsed and many traders went bankrupt. Also in the Botanical Gardens of Leiden is an old observatory originally founded by Jacobus Golius (1596-1677), professor of Arabic, who traveled to Istanbul and Aleppo and collected many astronomy manuscripts for Leiden University, including one created by Ottoman Sultan Murad IV's court astronomer.

I looked at the ordered, calm, and industrious Dutch of this city and realized not only how much we need to see, read, hear, and ask about the life and ways of thinking in the lands far beyond these canals, but also of the lives of those "different" ones now living among us. Is the legacy of Erpenius alive today in Leiden?

Yes, it is. Today, Leiden University has one of the largest and most extensive departments covering the Muslim world - from Morocco to Indonesia; from the rise of Islam to the present. Today, some 6,000 priceless manuscripts from the Middle East in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish can be found in Leiden University Library's Middle East and Islam Collections, such as the "Ring of the Dove" by Tawq al-hamamafi'l-ulfa wa 'l-ullaf, an 11th century Arabic book about love.

Today, you can see the Turkish Mimar Sinan Mosque, built in 1995 for the Turkish community in the precinct of a former Dutch Reformed Church, and which offered the first minaret on the skyline of Leiden.

Today, there are halal Islamic butcher shops and Turkish barbers scattered on the streets of the city and Moroccans selling olives in the market, driving taxis and tending municipal bicycle garages.

A former church building on Rembrandtstraat housed the Moroccan Al Hijra Mosque, present in Leiden for 30 years. Al-Hijra commemorates the migration of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, a reference not lost on these immigrants. This building was replaced in 2012, when a brand new mosque opened in northern Leiden in a neighborhood more convenient to the Moroccan community.

Today, one can hope that Arabic is studied not to decipher ancient scientific texts, but to have an increased knowledge about the modern Middle East and Islamic culture. The sudden and pressing relevance of the events of January 7th bring all of this activity to imperative consciousness. Perhaps the goals of the University are not the same as in the 17th century, and most certainly the social structure of the Islamic world has changed since then - but what remains the same is that this city maintains a welcoming and appreciative place for that voice coming from afar - whether it manifests itself as medieval manuscripts, Arabic poems on walls, or Turkish butcher shops. This is a lesson for all of us to heed.

In the late January afternoon, a cold wind picked up and I wrapped my wool scarf more tightly around my neck as I strolled along the picturesque canals of the city. I was reminded that we must wrap our lives in optimism and beauty, or else we are doomed to live a perpetual polar winter of cultural, racial, and religious misunderstandings. Like those 17th century tulip dealers in Holland, we, too, will go bankrupt if we let our mania get out of control in the wrong way. I thought of the last lines of the poem of Nasir Kazmi that I saw on the wall opposite the public library:

If the cruel wind of the times continues to sway,
Earth will lie drained of water, the sun deceived of rays.

Spring is soon coming, and the beds of the Leiden Botanical Garden and all of Holland will be ablaze with dancing floral turbans, of many colors and varieties. I think of the mountains of freshly-cut blooms that fill the cargo holds of hundreds of planes departing from Schiphol Airport each day, bringing their splendor to the entire world. It all started here in Leiden, with one bulb from a foreign land planted in peace; with the will of one community to work together and live not as enemies, but friends; with Europeans willing to embrace the difference of the other and to learn from it. I take the inspiration gleaned on my walks along those cobblestone streets of Leiden in the suitcase of my mind as a souvenir more precious than any piece of Delft china: the hope for a world where we, too, can bloom in harmonious color with our neighbors, and where we can share our lives with Islam - not as enemies, but as blossoms in one garden of beauty.