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The content of my current Dutch lessons is starkly different from any other language course I have taken. We cover topics like subsidies available through the government, dealing with the belasting dienst (tax office), whether or not it is okay to embrace unemployment as a lifestyle, assimilation, asylum seekers in the Netherlands, etc. These and other topics have led me to conclude that my class is designed primarily for people from lower-income brackets immigrating into the country (sounds familiar) and/or those who have come here out of extreme necessity. Thus, odds are that behind some of those beautiful faces of my female classmates are stories so tragic that most of us have no experiences in which to equate (and are deeply blessed by this fact).

Last week the teacher assigned lesson eight: de wet. It sounds innocuous enough. Lesson eight. The one right after lesson seven, which was about receiving help from the government to pay the rent, and before lesson nine. But, de wet is not about how wet it can be here with all the rain, or some sort of slang the Dutch picked up back in their days in New York from the neighboring New Jerseyians. De wet is The Law.

At first, I thought this topic would be somehow refreshing after studying social services and taxes. I only have a vague sense of the laws here, which seem to me a bizarre mix of liberal idealism and indifference, enmeshed in an intricate web of bureaucracy. In my current state of ignorance of Dutch law, I take it for granted that the laws are similar to those in the U.S.: Don’t kill anybody; Don’t steal; Don’t get caught rolling through a stop sign, and so forth. In some countries, acting upon such assumptions of similarity could lead to no uncertain death by doing something as simple as speaking your mind or not dressing appropriately for your gender.

Quite often, we are asked to discuss new topics in the context of how they differ from our prospective homelands. Yet, I find many of the textbook questions invasive. For example: Do you have a job? If not, why? Do you receive a subsidy from the government? In some American dialects, this translates into “Are you a loser? Why?”

As I read through the questions about de Wet, it seemed to me the chances of a cultural time bomb going off in the classroom were pretty high.  For example: Hebben mannen en vrouwen de zelfde rechten? (Do men and women have the same rights?) Lord. As I looked at my Afghani, Moroccan, Iraqi and Iranian classmates with their tightly wrapped head scarves,  I knew such a question would make for interesting, if not uncomfortable conversation. It was then that I realized I wouldn’t be the fly on the wall listening in on fascinating cultural exchange, but the sole American in the room, with fading highlights in my uncovered hair.

When I was asked to pose a question to a classmate, I skimmed the list, trying to find something less like a bloody scab cracking open and more like a general topic. Thus I chose this question: Are there countries with very little or no laws and rules?

I posed the question to an Iranian woman whose name I remembered. She usually spoke very little due to her limited Dutch. I will give her the name of Sayah for this post. As background, I had earlier learned that Sayah’s grandfather had four wives and 35 children. She is thus one of a multitude of grandchildren. She hadn’t mentioned how many siblings and cousins were in her generation, not to mention their collective offspring. But given the religious adherence to an Islamic version of  “be fruitful and prosper,” I’m imagining hundreds of first cousins. I don’t even know if there exists a wide angled lens wide enough to capture her whole family in one shot.

I would think if you come from a family this large, you would need to be tough, vocal. Edging your way into the conversation, asserting yourself at the dinner table to get your piece of the pie. Less Iranian and more like her Moroccan classmates, shall we say. Yet Sayah is meek, almost fearful in demeanor. During another class meeting where we went over prescriptions in Dutch, it came out that she has insomnia. She wasn’t alone. Several other students shared her condition. I wondered what could be so bad that she couldn’t sleep until daylight. I figured it was some sort of cultural difference, pressures of being a Muslim female with many responsibilities to serve everyone before yourself, if ever yourself. Most of the women with insomnia said they couldn’t get their thoughts to go away, making gestures of a wheel going round in round in their heads. I suggested meditation. I digress. An avoidance tactic I’m sure. I’m taking a deep breath as I think of how to share what happened next. Am I too Western? Do I just want to hear nice things? Am I that shallow? That trained in the discourse of niceties?

So in response to what I had deemed a middle of the road question–Zijn er ook landen met weinig of geen wetten en regels? Are there countries with very little or no laws and rules?–Sayah started talking about haar vrienden (her friends) in Iran. Her body language changed as she struggled for the words in Dutch. She wrapped her fingers around her wrist, as if showing a bracelet. She spoke about a hospital and about friends hanging. I was confused. The teacher was confused. The other women who spoke Arabic dialects talked with Sayah in their native tongues, trying to interpret the details of her story. “Drie of vier vrienden elke dag. Ophangen.” I hoped dearly that  I misunderstood, but soon, the other women started adding in bits of information and confirming that my comprehension was spot on; Back in Iran, her friends had been hung. Three or four every day for a period of days. Men and women. Women with young children. No mercy. She was on the list of those considered to be dissidents. Those who had disagreed with something or someone, in most cases guilty by association.

However, she was also quite sick at the time and was taken to the hospital for her chronic asthma, as were her children. From there, she and her family were flown out of the country. She stayed several months in another country before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she has been ever since. I don’t know how long “ever since” is, but I want to find out.

Sayah spoke a little more about her family. There it was again. Her fingers wrapping around her wrists. Not bracelets. Handcuffs. Many of her family members were in prison and she had no means of contacting them. As we pieced this information together, Sayah reached into her bag for her inhaler and took a raspy breath, tears in her eyes.

It became clear to me what sort of thoughts were keeping Sayah up at night, why she couldn’t sleep until daylight. Not the daily responsibilities of a Muslim woman, but the murder of her friends and family. m and f. I can’t even put those two words in the same compartment of my mind. I push it outward.  I love my friends and family so much, I can’t take my empathy to the place of imagining it happening to me. The only murderous entity in my circle of friends and family is that horrible beast known as cancer–and you can fight cancer with the collective knowledge of doctors, scientists and spiritual resources from around the world. Many I know have fought it and won. Some are in the midst of a glorious battle. Others have lost the battle, but were surrounded by a compassionate society of friends and family during the process.

I realize too that Sayah is perhaps one of the strongest women among us. The strength of a survivor. I imagine the horror she is going through, though from a slightly removed place.  I feel the tightening of my tear ducts, the instant pressure of emotion swelling upward.

I want to say lots of things, as do many of the other women in class. For once, I go Moroccan.  I blurt out my opinions and questions in paltry Dutch, my voice competing with all of the other women expressing their anger at the situation. The teacher is equally mortified. She uses words like vreselijk (horrible) and slecht (bad). I have the urge to donate money I don’t have to an Iranian human rights activist group.

What I eventually say is very American of me. “What can be done? How can this be stopped? If you are hung for voicing a dissident opinion, how can regime change ever come about?” Yet, it seems that we are seeing how it happens in Egypt, in Libya. Bloody uprisings where people die in the process of demanding change. And even then, there are no guarantees.

The class ends. Before I leave, I touch Sayah’s shoulder and just a bit of her long, burgundy headscarf. I say in my broken Dutch, “Thank you Sayah. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience with us.” I want to say I’m glad you are alive, that your children are alive, that your husband is alive. That this is a lot to be thankful for. But I keep my optimism in check. I think these things for her and as a Christian, I pray for a Muslim. That, and sharing her story with others.

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