The guest worker's tale - feelgood version

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at

A newspaper serial about a Moroccan who came to the Netherlands as a guest worker in the early 1970s has become extremely popular in the Netherlands.

Driss is his name, and although the stories are presented as being autobiographical, it was recently revealed that they are the work of two young Dutch writers of Moroccan parentage. They thought it was time to tell the story of their fathers, who were once also guest workers.
The serial's main character is Driss Tafersiti, who comes to the Netherlands in 1972. He goes to work at a fish processing plant at IJmuiden on the Dutch coast, and has all kinds of crazy adventures with his Moroccan and Turkish flatmates Mustapha and Kemal, many of them involving significant quantities of beer. He has Dutch lessons from a nice Jewish lady, falls in love with a Dutch girl called Jolanda, and eventually marries her. He starts to write his memoirs when he hits his fifties.
The stories started appearing on the back page of national evening newspaper NRC Handelsblad in 2009, and soon won a large following. Earlier this year, the serial was chosen as the newspaper's best story of 2009. Driss is a migrant who's open to his new surroundings and who takes in everything with naive amazement. He describes what happened to him with a great deal of humour and charm; elements which, in recent years, have been often notable by their absence in relations between Dutch Muslims and non-Muslims.
Pen name
The serial was recently turned into a book, published in June this year under the title Ik, Driss - Een autobiografie* (I, Driss - An Autobiography). It was then that it was revealed that Driss Tafersiti was a pen name disguising two young Dutch-Moroccan writers, Asis Aynan and Hassan Bahara. They used the stories told by their fathers and uncles as the basis for their work, as Asis Aynan told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
RNW: What drove you to write Driss' story?
When you or I think about the first wave of guest workers [in the 1960s and 1970s, ed.], we imagine old, clapped out 'little' men, shuffling along, bent over and looking at the ground. But back when those little guys came here, they were adventurers, energetic, brave young men with dreams. You need to be really brave to move and go and live somewhere three thousand kilometres away, in a country with different customs and a different language, and one which also happens to be a couple of metres below sea level. It struck us that no-one had ever told their tale. So we dreamt up this fictional character and made him relive the whole experience for us. By the way, Driss Tafersiti is the name of a character in the novel Het strandcafé (The Beach Cafe) by the illiterate Moroccan author Mohammed Mrabet.
RNW: Did no one see through your disguise?
No, when we wrote the newspaper serial it was apparently so convincing that no one began to question it. I think people really wanted to believe that it was true [...] Added to that, we did our homework well in order to make it as genuine-sounding as possible. Everything's accurate: the music of the day, the jobs, the education system, even the numbers of the local buses.
RNW: It's very much a 'feelgood' story. Driss is open and receptive to Dutch society; he learns Dutch, takes a course, and ends up marrying a Dutch girl. That's exactly what often didn't happen. So, why did you choose to give the whole thing such a positive spin?
The so-called open debate in the Netherlands about the multicultural society has ended in total deadlock. The atmosphere is nasty and vicious. We chose to do something different by not taking part in all that. We're swimming against the current trend by writing a book that leaves you feeling good.

RNW: With all due respect for Driss' charms, are you not running the risk of it [your book, ed.] turning into a kind of lullaby for the well-off in this country? Something along the lines of 'Sleep tight, everything turned out right in the end'...?.
And what's so wrong with that? We've made such a mess of the multicultural debate that we'll probably never be able to sort it all out with the current generation. So, we can better concentrate on the positive side of things right now. For some people it may well be a very good idea for them to sleep tight for a while.  

Lead photo for cover of book* by Lieve Colruyt