I’m sitting in the Dominican Republic talking to one of the many European workers who have migrated down here in recent years. “How long you been on the island?” I ask him.
“Oh, about four years now,” he replies.
What brought you to this particular island?” I ask, always curious as to why so many foreigners have come here.
“I came here,” he says, “because I got tired of the Belgium winters, the unemployment, and the influx of immigrants that don’t respect Belgium values, laws, or freedoms.”
Funny. I’ve been hearing this same answer over and over, or variations of it, for the past five years or so, especially since 9/11.
“Look,” he bends over the bar to get closer to me, “I’m from Brussels, Frank. I’ve lived in Belgium my whole life, I love my country, and I love my culture. I went to school with a lot of immigrants; many of whom I worked with, studied with and who became my closest friends. I played football with them, hung out with them.
“But when nearly all my Muslim friends despise the Belgium system, despise our education system, despise our tax system, our culture, our values, and our way of life, and then, on top of that, do everything in their powers to exploit our system to the fullest, well, you just get sick of it, and eventually, you don’t want to be around it any more.”
After making me an espresso, he leans back over the bar and continues, “Listen, Frank, you just can’t escape the lack of logic going on in Europe right now: In Belgium, France, England, Italy, and elsewhere, the Muslim community have sympathy for Al Qaeda, they have sympathy for Osama Bin Laden, they have sympathy for people that blow themselves up in the name of Allah, and they don’t show even the remotest sense of outrage over innocent people being killed in their own back yards.”
“You mean Madrid and Britain?”
“Yeah.. It makes you question their sense of values and justice. They won’t protest the senseless murders committed everyday in the name of Allah, but they come out in the hundreds of thousands to protest a caricature of Muhammad. Where is the logic?”
He shakes his head and goes to wait on other customers. I’ve been thinking about how many similar stories I’ve heard down here in the last few years from Italians, Swiss, German, French, and now, a Belgium bartender.
I have similar experiences myself. I’m a bartender in Oslo, Norway, where I’ve worked on and off for the last ten years. Although I’m an American, I migrated to Norway in the 90’s after meeting a Norwegian woman. I found myself working in the service industry simply because it was the only occupation that allowed me to escape the cold, dark Scandinavian winters and return in the spring when the sun comes back.
Norway is a fabulous place. The people are gentle and kind, and go about their daily lives in a peaceful, unstressed manner, unaffected by most of the world’s problems. I’ve gotten to know and make friends with a lot of Norwegians over the years, and many of these relationships have blossomed into life-sharing experiences. Bartending is one of the few occupations in life where, for good or bad, one is paid basically talk to people, get to know them, and listen to their troubles and complaints (sometimes, unfortunately, for hours). Over the years, I have met more than my share of colorful characters, and many of those encounters have blossomed into lifelong friendships.
Nearly all of the Scandinavians that I’ve gotten to know through bartending in Oslo have been wonderful, gentle people, the kind you want to work alongside in times of stress and chaos They’re honest to a fault. When it’s last call, for example, and people are crowding the bar, trying to get in a last order for drinks, and money is flying in all directions, I’ve witnessed, on more occasions than I can remember, Norwegian bartenders leaving the bar completely and wading through the dense crowds just to give someone back the change he’s forgotten.
It must have been 1997 or 1998 that I noticed a growing anti-Americanism on the part of Norwegians I had known for years. Sometimes it took an innocent angle-anti-Mc Donald’s, anti-Coca-Cola, etc. Which was weird, because while I, an American, have never drunk soft drinks or eaten at McDonald’s, nearly all my European friends love them. But the contradictions don’t stop there. Europeans also like to complain about the commercialization and low quality of American movies, music, etc. And yet the young people are captivated by American culture. They emulate the rap culture’s street slang, the hand gestures and ghetto talk. In fact they copy nearly everything they find even remotely interesting or lacking in their own culture. The contradictions are as fascinating as they are bizarre.
Then there are the immigrants. The ones I’ve become friends with are fantastic people. Most are Muslims whose parents came to Norway in the 70’s to work, or in some cases, were fleeing war or persecution, in particular the Balkans war in the 90’s. Nearly all have been extremely easy-going, polite people, whom I consider my closest friends.
If Norwegians are suckers for cheap drinks, jokes about Swedes or Finns, and warm, exotic climates, the male Muslim immigrants I’ve met are suckers for easy blond women, jokes about the U.S.A., conspiracy theories, myths, half-truths, and exaggerated stories about American values and morals. They love anything that makes the U.S. look inept, immoral, incompetent, or insignificant.
I’m still trying to come to terms with some of these contradictions. I had a second-generation Pakistani man, Mustaffa, sit at my bar and explain to me how 9/11 was a U.S. government conspiracy. When I asked Mustaffa about the video surveillance of some of the hijackers going through airport security on 9/11, he simply explained that the video had been doctored by the CIA. The whereabouts of the hijackers since 9/11? They were still in hiding. I said, “In hiding? It’s been 5 years and not one of them has ever been seen by anyone. Not even their family members have heard from them?” To which he calmly replied, “There’s nothing unusual about this. It’s possible to go into hiding for years without ever being seen by anyone. Look at Osama bin Laden.”
Another very nice Pakistani sat at my bar and announced matter-of-factly, in front of six other customers, “There are no homosexuals in Pakistan!” We all started laughing and then we asked him questions that challenged this assumption. He wasn’t the least bit fazed. He was convinced that it was true, but eventually qualified his statement by saying, “Well, I can tell you for sure that there are no Muslim homosexuals in Pakistan!”
On another occasion, far removed from a bar atmosphere, sitting on a bench in front of the Norwegian parliament building, a Pakistani friend told me, “The word Ali or Allah is written in Arabic on the moon and can be seen with the naked eye.” When I asked him how this was possible, he answered, “If you combine the craters in the right way, the word Ali or Allah is spelled out.” I pointed out that if you can form one word out of the millions of craters on the moon, then you can almost certainly form many other words.
But he wasn’t impressed.