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  • Writer's pictureJanset Nil

Dutch-Turkish Youth in Rotterdam and Self-Orientalism

A few weeks ago, I heard about a Rotterdam-based group of DJ’s called ‘Acid Hamam’. Curious about who they were and what they do, I visited their Instagram page. They describe their mission as organizing events ‘set in an utopian oasis with enchanting melodies.’ Hammams, enchanting music, images depicting Islamic architecture, and the desert… How orientalist, I thought, contributing to the discourse of the ‘exotic’ East. But several of the founders have non-Western names–if the founders themselves are from Turkey or Turkish, they can’t be orientalists, can they? Of course, this article is not an investigation into the group’s vision or mission but, rather, a look into a larger pattern I have personally noticed amongst the (second-generation) immigrants with Turkish background: the orientalizing of the self, or, self-orientalism.

Obviously, this is not a scientific article and rather a cumulation of my observations and personal experience. Before I begin, I must clarify my positionality: I am from Turkey, I am Turkish, and I moved to Rotterdam 2.5 years ago. I do not have any family in the Netherlands or Dutch citizenship. My experience in Europe as a Turkish person revealed to me that orientalist stereotypes are not something of the 19th century. My conversations with white Europeans made me realize that most people imagined Turkey, or most Middle Eastern countries for that matter, as a place similar to Disney’s Aladdin. Most were almost disappointed to hear that Turkey did not have camels on the streets, or that we had snow. Of course, a majority of the comments were not at all ill-intended but, instead, were rooted in a lack of education or a reluctance to acquire knowledge about the region beyond mainstream media. Once, a colleague, with the best of intentions, said that the hot steam from the dishwasher would make me feel at home, at a Turkish hammam—I have never been to one, or seen one. However, whether coming from a place of naivete or hate, the existence of these stereotypes are harmful as they reduce the Middle East to a homogenous, monolithic region, dismissing unique personalities, cultures, and distinct experiences. But what if somebody from Turkey reproduced these orientalist stereotypes? Or more importantly, why would they do that?

Meeting Dutch-Turkish and Turkish youth here, it was clear to me that the Turkish experience here in the Netherlands was wildly different from my experience as a Turkish person in Turkey. Most of them listened to a band called Altın Gün, who I have never heard of before coming here. To me, Altın Gün was Turkish music strategically exoticized to cater the Western palette. In addition, while doing preliminary research for this article, I have noticed that most Instagram profiles belonging to Turkish-Dutch youth had the devil’s eye (nazar) emoji in their biography section. I have never seen the devil’s eye being used this much ever before. One user even identified themselves as an ‘Ottoman export’. Coming back to our central question, why do people with a Turkish background contribute to the Orientalist images of Turkey, I have come up with two very non-academic answers. The younger diaspora does this either because, growing up in a Western country, they themselves have internalized this Orientalism, view Turkey through the Western gaze, and genuinely imagine Turkey as a massive hammam-devil’s eye-desert; or, have internalized this Orientalism and exoticize themselves to appeal to the Western gaze. Of course, this is far from being an academic analysis and a blog post is not the place to conduct such in-depth analysis. However, academics too have observed this phenomenon.

In The Failure of Multiculturalism, Kenan Malik observes a distinction between first-generation and second-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany. According to Malik, while first-generation immigrants were secular, today, one-third of adult Turks in Germany regularly attend the mosque (which is a higher rate than in many parts of Turkey), or, while first-generation Turkish women almost never wore headscarves, most of their daughters do so. His article reveals that the reason for this divergence can be traced back to Germany’s immigration policies. Malik argues that, instead of welcoming immigrants as equals, they have approached the ‘Turkish problem’ through a policy of multiculturalism–not one rooted in a respect for diversity, but one that allowed avoiding the issue of creating a common and inclusive culture. These multicultural policies institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes. Following a similar set of policies, the Netherlands is now faced with alienated minorities. This is especially true for hyper-diverse cities such as Rotterdam, where minorities are not only put in legal ethnic and cultural boxes (Turkish, Muslim, Moroccan), but also put in physically separate parts of the city (such as Rotterdam’s Afrikaanderwijk). Until 2016, the Netherlands used the term Allochtoon to describe a person living in the Netherlands with at least one parent not born in the Netherlands. The term non-Western Allochtoon was used to describe people whose origin is in Turkey, Africa, Latin America, and Asia (except Indonesia and Japan). By reducing people into singular, homogeneous categories, these policies have created a fragmented society. It is normal that, in such a divided society, younger immigrants fail to view themselves outside of these given boxes and internalize the stereotypes that come with it.

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Malik, Kenan. “The Failure of Multiculturalism.” Foreign Affairs 94 (2019): 21-32.

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