UW News

January 25, 2021

Nicolaas Barr translates powerful Dutch coming out memoir ‘Djinn’

UW News

“Djinn,” by Tofik Dibi and translated by the UW’s Nicolaas Barr, was published in January by SUNY Press.

Tofik Dibi was elected by the GreenLeft party to the Dutch Parliament in 2006 at the age of 26 and served for six years. The son of Moroccan immigrants, he advocated for the rights of Muslims and other minorities in the Netherlands — but he never publicly discussed being a gay man.

Dibi opened up in his 2015 memoir “Djinn,” telling of his struggle with his sexuality and Muslim identity, and his work for social justice.

Publisher’s Weekly praised the book as “a punchy, raw chronicle (that) describes how he felt caught between ‘it’ — his homosexuality — and ‘them’ — his family, friends, and the wider community who looked up to him as an outspoken advocate for minority rights.”

Now Nicolaas Barr of the UW’s Comparative History of Ideas Department, working with the author, has translated the book into English and penned a new introduction. “Djinn” was published in January by SUNY Press as part of the publisher’s series in Queer Politics and Cultures.

Barr is a lecturer who also directs the department’s Amsterdam study-abroad program; he is an affiliate of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Online book event Jan. 31:
Nicolaas Barr and author Tofik Dibi will discuss “Djinn” with the UW’s Anu Taranath at 1 p.m. Jan. 31, in an online event sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Company.

UW Notebook caught up with Barr by email to ask about translating such an intimate personal story.

Why did you decide on this work to translate?

Nicolaas Barr: I chose it because in addition to being such a poignant and brave memoir, it cuts through the dominant “clash of civilizations” narrative between supposedly tolerant Europe, on the one hand, and minoritized people, especially Muslims, on the other.

Dibi was born in the Netherlands, speaks Dutch as a first language, and grew up steeped in Dutch culture and institutions, yet like other people of color, he is often treated as a permanent newcomer — or worse, as an unwanted threat. In addressing these themes, “Djinn” offers a compelling counter-narrative, showing how Dibi’s multiple identities are deeply entwined in the country’s distinctive cultural landscape.

The publication of this translation comes at a crucial moment when the Netherlands, like the United States, is being confronted with issues of systemic racial injustice: Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government just collapsed because of a scandal involving racial discrimination, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, has helped normalize the Dutch far right.

Nicolaas Barr

What was the biggest challenge in the translation process? Word choices? Faithfulness to the spirit of the original?  

N.B.: One of the challenges of translating a book written for Dutch audiences is that it assumes a familiarity with the Dutch political and cultural context — one that is quite different from the progressive image of the Netherlands that many of us have.

I was able to provide some of this background in a short introduction to the book, including the history of so-called “guest worker” immigration from Morocco, Turkey, and other countries around the 1960s and the rise of anti-Muslim politics over the past few decades, but I also had to embellish the text itself without intruding any more than necessary.

Because this is a memoir about such sensitive issues of religious and sexual identity, it was vital for me to channel Dibi’s voice, with both its vulnerability and force, to transmit its full emotional resonance as directly as possible.

How closely were you able to work with the author?

N.B.: Fortunately, I had the luxury of checking the translation with Dibi as I went (via email). He not only speaks excellent English, but also has a sharp ear for its idioms and slang, which helped give the memoir’s narration and dialogue the right tone and punch. It was gratifying to finish each chapter and see his enthusiasm as the text made its way into English, making the translation process anything but a solitary, thankless task.

I count this partnership as not only a professional but a personal blessing. He and I are almost identical in age, and while our identities and experiences are vastly different — a gap that necessarily remains — the project has given me a way to connect meaningfully to a life and a world outside my own. As a cishet white man, I’m honored to have helped this book reach Dibi’s queer Muslim “brothers and sisters beyond borders,” and to learn from his powerful story.

For more information, contact Barr at nickbarr@uw.edu.