22 jan / Stars in Amsterdam
It was a balmy summer evening, the last day of August. I was sitting under a tree in Westerpark and stared at the cloudless heavens. The sky was a deep purple, almost indigo. There was almost nobody in the park. I was not in a hurry. Nobody was waiting for me at home. Nobody even knew where I was.
My relationship had ended. Once again. I had lost count. She had come and gone so many times. An impossible love with an Egyptian girl, Islamic, in the closet, a prisoner in her parental home. At that moment, she was only two minutes away from where I was sitting, with her family. Two minutes, but two worlds, far away from me. No sense in getting up – I stayed seated. Just looking at the night. The branches of the trees, motionless. And I suddenly realised that this is what I want: not so much being free, but being able to enjoy that freedom.
Apart from my family and relationship, steady job or even just routine obligations, I have a freedom that is stiflingly scary.
I can live each day like a precious gift. I literally have total freedom: enough money, the right papers, a fine burgundy red passport – no country, person or place that denies me freedom.
I can go to Schiphol airport now and book the first ticket to wherever. I can walk into the city now and not return home for two days, or three.
I don’t do it.
What’s more, I’ve never done it.
Something holds me prisoner within the limitations of my own time and freedom.
And that’s the way I live every day – eat, drink, think, talk, talk a lot, sleep and stumble onwards – sometimes surprised, sometimes shiftless, sometimes exuberant. Sometimes defeated, but never conscious of the miraculous 24 hours that I have generously been given by my maker once again.
But now I’m sitting under this tree and while time passes, without me feeling part of that process, I take a decision.
The last time that I was happy longer than a day, and ran around in a state of joyful innocence, I was 10. That was when I was dealt the first blow. And yet another one.
My childhood came to an abrupt end.
I became visually impaired. It turned out I fell for the wrong sex. Too clever, too irritating, a problem child with straight A’s on my report card, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, was nevertheless seen as a ‘case’, therapy in order to put an end to those ‘delusions’ and I felt increasingly ashamed about that female body of mine.
Whispered that I was a boy, even said it out loud in grade six [Dutch primary school class for 9-10 year olds, red.] during a class talk. It was the only time that I received a fail.
Fell in love, got engaged, got married, got divorced. And then the cautious journey of discovery with regard to my love for girls – who were all as broken as me.
Abused. Undressed with eyes and mouths, inappropriately touched. Living for everyone else at the expense of their own happiness. Formed by a culture and so-called civilisation, which never sees them as being whole. In their attempt to ‘man up’, they hide their own sadness, close their hearts. Concrete walls, giving each love a false start.
I eventually stand up, stretch stiff limbs. And start to walk, slowly, looking above. Stars in Amsterdam.
It suddenly occurs to me that it’s my birthday in 30 days. What a year, what a life. And suddenly I take a decision: I’m going to give myself happiness back.
The 30 happiest days up until now.
Have no idea how that’s supposed to work, but I’m going to discover that. Setting out on adventures with myself in this city, in these times, in my own heart.
Out of that shell, a first time for something every day and counting my blessings – at least five – each day anew.
- Cycling through Westerpark in the languid light of the setting sun, the smells of the approaching summer tingling in my nostrils, memories, an endless amount, of my sweetheart and I, and the love that is absent, the tears sting my eyes, but I succeed, very slowly, in conjuring up a smile on my face and for the first time I feel the gratitude for what existed, even if it was only brief, and what I was able to feel. Happiness multiplies in this way. The happiness of that time and the happiness of now. Abundance.
- Aimlessly walking the streets; out of boredom, frustration, despair, escaping a feeling of suffocation. Now, I walk for hours simply to feel the movement of my legs, to see city life, to allow the thoughts in my head to have free rein. They are the same streets, but it is a different version of me walking through them now.
- Talking with a bus driver. I’ve caught the same bus a hundred times, but now I talk, cheerful, carefree and I ask myself: why did I sit at the back in silence all those days. Invisible. Unapproachable. A closed fortress with a smart phone in my hand, ears covered by the thick foam of my headphones. It’s not the outside world that I make invisible, but the inner world that I hide away, push aside, withdraw from sight.
In my fleeting moments of profound joy, I do meet people, but this meeting is not orchestrated through an appointment. A vague acquaintance who suddenly appears at my table, a party which I am invited to, a couple who I dance with and who subsequently take me along to the next party, getting home in the morning, not knowing how I ended up on this total rollercoaster ride, but thankful for all the love, spontaneity and care from complete strangers who feel like intimate friends.
- In the park with friends. The sun that caresses us with its warm embrace. Barbecue. Water pipe. Friends of friends who join us. The warm affection of people who know precisely who you are, who celebrate your happiness and share your pain, but never, no never, require your success to be your self-chosen family.
- Sunday afternoon, singing at the top of one’s voice about God as a regal monarch and his son, I finally feel safe at his throne. Back in church after many years, I dare to enter heaven and I see how it kisses the earth in fleeting moments of happiness.
Out of that comfort zone! cries my Moroccan coach, I begged for help and along came divine order. Out of nowhere, she was standing in front of me. “We’re going to work on you.”
“What do I need to do?” was my question.
Her reaction: “What are you no longer going to avoid doing, that is my challenge to you.”
Canoeing with a friend, in the heart of the city. Getting stuck in a lock. We may not have waterfalls or rapids, but we do have the swirling water from that strange stone box. Selling my dowry anyway after all those years. Curious gazes in the shop. “And how did you say that you got hold of all this gold again?”
Without batting an eyelid. “Oh, that was for my wedding, but I am actually a man.”
Go to a strip club, talk so long to the women that the boss asks me to leave the establishment. There’s work that needs to be done, of course.
“You’re a beautiful boy.”
“You’re an even more beautiful woman.”
“It’s because it’s not allowed, but I’ll do it for you for free.”
I come across a stuffed skunk with a scarf in the corridor. A British couple talk to their ‘Ruby’ and demand that I do the same. “He’s hurt, you got to apologise.” Naked women pass us left and right.
And the Antillean mothers by the coat hooks just roaring with laughter. Just when you think you’ve experienced everything in life, you meet a couple in the corridors of the Banana Bar who are talking to a stuffed skunk.
I sleep that evening like never before. With their hearty laughter and the fascinating conversations in my ears.
Oh life, where were you all this time? Oh Netherlands, why did you lose your sense of joy for so long?
Why are we so scared then? Of who, or what?
Anxiety is the fear of heights of freedom – that’s the best way to describe it.
Mounir Samuel (1989) is an Egyptian-Dutch opinion maker, journalist and writer. Her literary debut Liefde is een rebelse vogel (Love is a rebellious bird) was published by the Dutch publisher Uitgeverij Jurgen Maas this autumn.
This is a guest post by Mounir Samuel for our #MyBodyisMine campaign for MAMA Cash.