“Do you want a bodyguard?”

by Lale Gül

Black and white thinking (Issue II/2022)

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The Dutch author Lale Gül. Photo: Robin Utrecht / picture alliance


“Do you want a bodyguard?,“ the police officer asked. „I'm not sure if you have the right to that but you can try to apply, and I will add a note to the complaint.“ 

This is the third time in a week that I've come to the police station. The officer has printed out the screenshots that I sent them by email and put them in folder bearing my case number. They are all threats. Even if they are not explicit threats of murder, to shoot me or to cut my throat, they say things like “you'd better start digging your own grave“ or  “I can wait until we cross paths“. The police officer carefully separates the threats into those which could be prosecuted and those which cannot. But it's clear that some of them – for example, one with pictures of a gun – shock him. Every time he leafs through the folder, his expression gets a little more worried and a bit more uncertain.

All this started on February 10, 2021. My debut novel, “Ik ga leven“ [first published in Dutch, the title means “I am going to live“] arrived with a bang. The book is about a Muslim girl growing up between two worlds – conservative Islam and the more liberal Dutch society. The young woman feels drawn to the more liberal side of her life and as a result, must lie continuously. She lives a kind of double life. She also begins to question the religious rules her family lives by and even starts to find some slightly ridiculous.

The book's story didn’t just get attention from the local Muslim community, it also drew notice in the rest of the Netherlands and even internationally. I was on the cover of the weekly magazine, “le Point“ and my face was on posters all over Paris. The actor Sarah Jessica Parker sent me a message on Instagram, following my interview with the New York Times. Even Turkish media outlets covered my book and I also received interview requests from outlets in the Arab world. Al Jazeera wanted to make a documentary. I refused, of course. I didn't want even more furious comments coming at me from the Middle East too. I sold the foreign language rights to 10 countries but none of them were outside Europe. The book has since been on the bestseller list in the Netherlands for around a year.

“I was to precisely document the non-material damage his threats had caused me and explain why I thought the death threat was a death threat and recount how it had impacted my life.”

Recently I was in the Dutch city of Sassenheim for a book signing – unannounced, of course, for security's sake – and was signing book after book, while the police officer assigned me patrolled the book store. Suddenly a woman in her 50s approached me in a rush. She told me she had read my book and recognised so much in it. She had lived in my neighbourhood for 12 years, near the church. “I had neighbours that didn’t allow their daughter to do anything,“ she said. “She wasn't allowed to go to parties and was always getting grief. But her brothers could do whatever they wanted! I left the area because of my own kids.“

Occasionally I stop signing books, drink a bit of coffee and take a quick look at my phone and the many messages on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. There are thousands of message, most are complimentary and supportive, and I need to write back at some point. I have a bad conscience making people wait but there are just so many messages. “If you need to, you can always stay at my place,“ one woman writes. “I have an attic room in Nijmegen.“ It's one of countless similar mails. These are in stark contrast to some of the others: “Change your name, you terrible whore. You are a shame to all Turkish people. Don't dare to take the name of our religion in your bitch mouth again.“ So I block a few people, put my phone away and take up the pen to start signing books again.

Exactly a year ago I got an email from the Dutch version of victim support. There was a court case imminent against one of the men who had been threatening me. He had been sending photos of weapons and at that stage had already been in prison for seven months. I was to precisely document the non-material damage his threats had caused me and explain why I thought the death threat was a death threat and recount how it had impacted my life.

Everything was written down and sent to the Ministry of the Interior. The information would be used to decide whether the offender's property could be seized for reparations and whether he would remain in custody. Apparently even taxi fares I had paid could be reimbursed. A fellow student tells me that I am being used. “Muslims are already marginalised,“ he said, “and you're making it worse.“

“Everybody knows what van Doorn thinks of what he calls opponents of Islam. They must be destroyed.”

Meanwhile a Dutch writer, Abdelkader Benali, tweets that my book is badly written, nothing but hot air and with no convincing arguments. Benali says he has grave doubts about my sincerity and my credibility. The book is not relevant and my recalcitrant attitude indicates that my real problem must be something else.

This fellow writer, who maintains he would press charges if anything defamatory is said about Islam or about Moroccans, apparently doesn't think it's relevant when another writer, a colleague, is threatened. Another writer, Jamal Ouariachi, argues that, whether I like it or not, I must take responsibility and be careful not to paint a distorted picture of the Muslim community. Flemish philosopher, Maarten Boudry, defends me. “Lale gets all the hate and must take all the responsibility, but somehow the community is the 'victim'? Is this what support looks like?“

On Facebook, Warda el Kaddouri, a literature critic at the weekly magazine, “De Groene Amsterdammer“, says my book is badly written as well as racist and extremely right wing. She says she cried all day because apparently the whole country wants to read exactly this kind of thing. I took a photo of her Facebook post and published it on Twitter. Various people, including Benali, accused me of trying to embarrass the community. Dutch political party, Denk, takes out an ad in a Turkish newspaper with a picture of me and the slogan “do you want to stop haters of Islam? Vote Denk“. Journalist Kemal Rijken writes in the monthly magazine, “Hp/De Tijd“, that he finds the whole debate annoying because mostly it benefits op-ed writers, my publisher and right-wing politicians.

At the same time another politician - Arnoud van Doorn of Partij van de Eenheid (Party of Unity) an Islamic political party – files an official complaint against me because I had called him a dog on twitter, after he called me an enemy of all Muslims. Everybody knows what van Doorn thinks of what he calls opponents of Islam. They must be destroyed. And he's already being investigated for making similar statements. Writing in the newspaper, Volksrant, historian Nuri Kurnaz criticizes the media coverage of my book, saying that it has ignored diversity, labelled Muslim parents as oppressors and that they, with some justification, now feel attacked.

The former GroenLinks politician and columnist, Zihni Özdil, tweeted this about my book: “Great writing, but unfortunately a little bit too restrained. Because the reality of the parallel Turkish society is much worse than what has been written. I hope she is more daring more in the next books.“ I also received support from Marieke Hoogwout, an editor with the left-wing platform, Vrij Links.

“Reading those kinds of messages, I realize I don’t have to hide my own truth just to do others a favour.”

“Growing up in the 1970s/80s/90s, I witnessed how the left was always fighting Christian orthodoxy,“ she wrote. “Argument, mockery, satire - everything was permitted and all of it happened. In almost all the writings of [Dutch authors] Reve, 't Hart and Wolkers, a church elder is thrown out of the house or a cleric insulted, ad nauseum. No film arrived without the threat of damnation. Life of Brian, Popie Jopie, Jesus Leads (in Robert Long's version). And now Lale - a young woman, an Amsterdam local, a Dutchwoman - is supposed to watch her tone or understand her “responsibility“. It's despicable and cowardly. To have all the freedom one wants for oneself but then to demand of other, younger people who live in the same country that they should react to injustice a little more quietly, that they should be a little more obliging, to think of the “atmosphere“ around this debate. I. Just. Don't. Get. It.“

Recently I was in a bookstore in Rotterdam where they had just ordered more copies, as has happened in many other shops too. I asked the bookseller why my book was doing so well. “A lot of young people with immigrant backgrounds, the kinds of people we never usually see in here, come in especially and ask about it,“ he replied. I read about this in my inbox too. “I usually don't read a lot because I find it hard to concentrate but I got through your book in one day,“ the messages say. “When will you publish the next one?“

Reading those kinds of messages, I realize I don’t have to hide my own truth just to do others a favour.

Translated from Dutch into German by Dania Schüürmann



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