Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

27 December 2007

Pem Sluijter 15 May 1939-18 December 2007

Filed under: Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 5:37 pm

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”–Ephesians 2:14

(This year I was ready for Christmas a week ahead of time. I had the cards out and the gifts bought. Then on the Tuesday Anastasia called and said she didn’t know how to say what she had to say, she had never done this before. I had to ask her to repeat herself, and only then did I even start to realize that our Pem was gone. She got there first. This verse entitled her funeral service, and proclaims her hope for the Middle East. You can find Pem’s poetry and musings on her website and blog; Pem’s link is on my blogroll. She wrote as a journalist, as a poet, as a friend. I spent the week before Christmas translating her poetry for the funeral, together with Anastasia and Erik, we had the privilege of translating the tributes to Pem by her husband Bram, her sons, and her cousin. And all last week, I felt Pem with us as we rearranged her words. Then on Saturday an extraordinary thing happened as hundreds of people came together to celebrate my friend’s life and all she stood for in terms of peace and peace-making. We told Pem’s story as tears mixed with laughter. I finished the day singing Christmas carols in homes for the elderly around The Hague, an activity Pem was supposed to attend with us. She was there; we just couldn’t see her. What follows is the tribute I read on behalf of our Church at Pem’s funeral on 22 December.)

Pem was many things to many people. I cannot begin to describe her many-splendored beauty. Wife, mother, grandmother, poet. All I can do is describe who she is for me, a small sliver of light limited to the time and space when our lives intersected. This sliver of the rainbow that is Pem, I call Friend.

I met Pem 23 years ago. We were part of a women’s Bible Study, together with Helene, and Kathy, Eliane, and some others who have left. Kathy and I have a photo taken during one of these Bible studies, of our toddlers playing naked in a pool on a hot summer day, and we’re still using it to blackmail our adult children with.

Pem and I share a love for words: the written word, and Jesus the Word. Her manifestation of God’s life and love which is the Word, dazzles me still. Through the years I tried to dance along the same lines, so to speak, writing from the heart. Whenever a new book came out, I congratulated her, or she congratulated me. I went to her readings. I met fascinating people there and we exchanged our wonder of Pem and Bram. Many of them are you, who are here today. Pem and I saluted and supported each other as women of words. The books piled up, as did the years. Until exactly a year ago, when I became a regular visitor again, to Riouwstraat 145, as I joined the organizing committee of the Palestinian-Israeli youth camp, that took place this last August. The rhythm of my seeing Pem and Bram assumed a pattern of Saturday afternoons, fresh broodjes and homemade soup, as our little group waded through the endless details involved in organizing a reconciliation camp for people living in enemy countries. We despaired—I despaired sometimes that it would not happen—too many visa problems, the money, grant applications in a language that baffled even the best of us multi-linguals.

But as you know the camp did happen, and it was an oasis of hope in the midst of so much despair, as these young people exhibited courage and a willingness to be surprised by friendship.

Less than two weeks ago, our little band met around the great, scarred, storytelling oak table next to the kitchen again. We gave God the glory for the camp, and how all the countless loose threads came together. We shared stories of email follow-up, and sat amazed to hear, for example, that we had not exceeded our EU subsidy budget. We leaned over drawings by the kids and sighed over quotes. We prayed and gave thanks, and dared to set out a vision for the next camp.

I will never forget the last night of that camp. Everyone but the West Bank teens had returned to the Middle East. These kids from the worst places spent the night in Pem and Bram’s house. We sat around that oak table with candles and cognac and spekkoek, relieved, and not yet realizing just how explosive the fruit of our small seed of peace might become. The West Bank Palestinian kids came in all breathless from the beach at Scheveningen. They had been singing the Hebrew praise songs they had learned at the camp on the tram. “Can’t do that at home,” they laughed. The tall boy, so rigid and resistant though the camp, gave hugs to us all, bending over Pem’s form and thanking her. These kids, they blew into our lives and broke our hearts and now … we email. One of the Israelis is moving next month to Jordan, where she will learn Arabic.

But Pem. Pem, my poet. Anastasia and I were planning to meet with her. We had this great idea of sitting at master Pem’s feet with our poetry and growing as writers. We did meet. Anastasia and I had wanted to wait until after Pem’s surgery, but on the one afternoon when we went ahead and met without Pem, who couldn’t make it because of the pending operation, our master poet still managed to be present: Pem sent an email that came through on my Blackberry while Anastasia and I were poring over a poem, and she hadn’t even known we had gotten together. And even though she had said she wanted to wait until after the operation, Pem offered wisdom and helped me with the very poem we had been working on: a poem some of you received for Christmas. And she comforted me with words like, leave it in the drawer, let time do its work, wait for the good words, poems need to grow, give them space, believe, listen for the words. Trust.

Her poems, the youth camps, the youth center for Palestinians on the land she and Bram have bought, Tabitha ministries, the grandchildren to be held—I think, Pem, you weren’t finished yet!

Ik wens jullie heel veel sterkte. You are not alone.

Only Pem and Bram could have brought a group like this one together today, in this holy place. You are people of the Book: Muslims, Jews and Christians, poets, lover, children and grandchildren, worshipers and wonderers, all.

You know—she and Bram—during our meetings about the often wearisome logistics of the camp—sometimes Pem and Bram would voice different opinions. Now, I come from a family of destructive disagreements. So whenever I heard Pem say, “I disagree, Bram,” or heard Bram say, “I think you’re wrong, Pem,” all my alarms went off and I would look into the soup bowl, pleading that our circle not be broken. But inevitably, Pem would then say, “I didn’t realize that,” or Bram would say, “You’re right, this is important,” and I would grasp yet again that they were not arguing; they were listening—to each other and to their hearts. And if there is any one gift greater than the rest that Pem gave me, it was this: to listen.

When I heard the news that Pem was gone, I did not understand. I wasn’t listening. I heard that she was dead, but I had to ask that the words be repeated. And then my heart gasped, “You’re in heaven?!” And I longed to see her dancing like a child in the Light.

I wanted to write her an email, picturing her at her desk, those rare and precious bent hands and fingers, puzzling out yet another message. I wanted to wait and watch the inbox for her answer. “I’m still here. In your hearts.”

I am listening still.

A plot, even smaller. Pruned
further back. What remains is
vast: a holy salute bequested
to the beloved, a salute that
cuts the heart.

So wrap my life in many threads
and hang it from a tree

Where it can bear fruit
’til I come marching in,
singing with arms
outstretched around your orchard,
past the river
through your city.

–Pem Sluijter (Translated from the collection Roos is een bloem (Rose is a flower), published by Arbeiderspers and awarded the C. Buddingh prize for poetry in 1997.)

6 December 2007

Last Wednesday–Launching new teen novel about aids survival–in style!

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 11:45 am

dans-7a.jpgDans op de zee has just been published in Dutch! What better way to launch a book about surfing, than to invite kids to read the story, then learn how to surf? But where to go surfing in Holland when it’s winter? Leave it to the Dutch: there’s an indoor wave-sport complex in Zoetermeer. And on 28 November classes from De Stromen school in Alphen, came to hear me talk and tell me what they thought of the story. . . .dans-1a.jpg Then they showed me their posters designed for the Promise Poster Contest. . . .dans-6a.jpg And then . . . THEY LEARNED HOW TO SURF!!! dans-9a.jpg

For a description (in Dutch) and more great photos of this cool event, click here for the TEAR website.

4 December 2007

Last Tuesday–On nationwide television with Dutch Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 8:07 pm

tv.jpgLast week was one of those weeks that felt like one long party. The kind during which you take a nap, wake up and dance some more. I found out on Monday that Tuesday afternoon I’d be on nationwide television, participating in a talk show with the Dutch Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk, as well as a criminal journalist and a fundraiser for a burn-victim foundation. Quite a mixed bag. Andries Knevel, the interviewer, has his own weekly show, Het Elfde Uur, and he has a bit of a reputation for making his guests squirm. The program went well, better than I could have hoped, considering it was in Dutch and I had to be smart and pretty, all at the same time.

The reason for my invitation was that December 1 was World Aids Day, and I have just had a children’s book about aids published in Dutch.

If you want to see the actual broadcast, then click here, then click on the Video button with the eye. My part of the interview starts about halfway during the show.

For the trivia buffs among us, watch out for the man sitting behind me. (I think he was hoping to sell a fishing net during the show.) And the woman sitting behind Mr. Knevel is none other than my publisher, Aukelien Wierenga. The man sitting behind Mr. Knevel is Matthijs van Pijkeren, my TEAR contact and go-to man.

For more (Dutch) info about Dans over de zee and the wwkidz series for teens, click on

Here’s a (rough) English translation of the interview–
Mr. Knevel introduced me by asking if I really had sold 5 million books. When I said yes, he asked were they all sold in The Netherlands? And I got to answer that my books have been translated into 50 languages. Then he added that we would be talking about my new teen novel, Dans over de zee, and about aids children in Africa, which I had visited often.

Then, halfway during the show, the interview really got underway:
AK: Mrs. de Graaf, you write children’s books, about extremely serious problems, am I right?
AdG: Yes.
AK: About aids in Africa . . .
AdG: Aids in Africa . . .
AK: You’ve been to Africa several times.
AdG: Yes, in the last 12 years, about 14 times . . . I’ve seen all of sub-Saharan Africa.
AK: While researching aids.
AdG: For aids, and also for child soldiers.
AK: And can you tell us something new about that? We’ve been having an awareness campaign all week. This week we’ve been raising funds, it’s aids week. Saturday is World Aids Day, I think.
AdG: 1 December.
AK: Yes, that’s Saturday. Is there, now, anything new to say?
AdG: Anything new to say? Yes, I think people need to become aware of the aids issue, and many parents want to protect their children from this. . . .
AK: There? Or here?
AdG: Here. In The Netherlands.
AK: Oh yeah?
AdG: Yes. I think a lot of people say, okay, that’s all so far away and I want to protect my children from this misery. But this is exactly why we’ve written this series of books, World Wide Kidz. It’s a tool for raising awareness among children in The Netherlands about children in developing countries.
AK: So if we want that, that our children become aware of the problems among children in Africa, in developing countries, or Africa. . . .
AdG: Developing countries.
AK: So, that’s what we think. That’s what you think.
AdG: Yes, I think it’s extremely important. The more children who engage in issues concerning others, the more compassion and understanding they learn, and the more tolerant our society will become in the future.
AK: Now you’ve also contributed to another book, called Positief, and in here you write about your latest trip to South Africa, and you say that afterwards you had a very hard time. That you really didn’t know how to cope, despite even all your other travel experiences.
AdG: That’s right. Yes.
AK: What was it that crippled you like this?
AdG: Well, I have seen a fair amount. I’ve even stayed in a refugee camp with Congolese refugees. But this time last year I went to Zimbabwe and South Africa to study the aids issue. I interviewed many aids orphans, child psychologists and people who work with aids orphans. I was prepared for a lot of things, but for me the most difficult thing was that here you have an aids orphan, a child who’s lost not just his father, but also his mother. He doesn’t even get the opportunity to process his grief, then he must take on the burden of responsibility for his little brothers and sisters. They have to come up with the school fees, otherwise they’re dismissed from school. And then on top of everything else, because they are such a vulnerable segment of the population, aids orphans are often sexually abused.
AK: They’re raped.
AdG: They’re raped. And I’ve met children, a little girl, she was 9 when she was raped–and now she’s 12–and infected with hiv, because of that rape.
AK: And that’s when you couldn’t find your way anymore?
AdG: You could say that. It was . . . too much. And I saw, literally, no hope for these children. The children have so much courage. They say . . . they always want to talk about football. They know everything about Ajax and Feijenoord. Every child has a dream. So this book is based on the true stories of children I met. But it’s all been combined into one composite character. And Promise–that’s his name–he has a dream of becoming a surfer.
AK: This is a book, it’s going to be presented to a school tomorrow, in The Netherlands, about a boy who has to care for his father and mother. His father is dead, his mother dies, he has to care for his siblings, his little sister gets raped, comes down with hiv, as well . . . and eventually he becomes a great surfer, but there’s a huge amount of sadness in this book. I’ve read it and I know a fair amount about aids, and it really touched me, this book.
AdG: Good.
AK: No, really.
AdG: But that’s the point. That’s really the point. I believe that people’s hearts open much wider for fiction than for a documentary. And look, people say there are 16 million aids orphans in Africa, but 16 million–that’s the population of The Netherlands. But that doesn’t say very much. Yet when you come face to face with a victim–with one child–the story or voice of one child, that’s what really touches you and then I think, that’s when you reach the point of being willing to do something.
AK: And that’s the point. This is a children’s book, it’s being offered to a school, and in The Netherlands schools should become more involved in raising the awareness of children about aids in Africa–and not in terms of numbers, but on a human level.
AdG: On a human level, and in terms of story, through the individual stories of children. I worked on this book together with Columbus Publishing, and three aid organizations in The Netherlands, Woord en Daad, Zoa Refugee Care and TEAR. TEAR was my sponsor. And in South Africa and Zimbabwe I stayed with several of TEAR’s partner organizations. And they’ve put together a lesson pack. . . .
AK: Right, here it comes. Go ahead. Because the minister of education’s here tonight.
AdG: Now? Is that all right? This lesson pack is hot off the press. And it’s for Dans over de zee. Every school can order one. It contains a board game, a poster contest, an internet quiz. . . .
AK: And this book?
AdG: And this book.
AK: It’s a beautiful book.
AdG: Thank you. Thank you very much.
AK: It really touches you, this story.
AdG: Thank you. I was able to process all my problems, and my being blocked, through writing it, so this book has also helped me.
AK: Okay, give this to the minister.
AdG: So I’d like to hand this over to you as a symbolic gesture.
Min (Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk): Thank you. I think it’s very good that you’ve done this.
AK: What is your reaction?
Min: Actually, I think it’s excellent that you do this, that you do this work. May I look inside?
AdG: Yes. Of course.
AK: May I ask just one more question of you?
AdG: Yes.
AK: I started to hate men . . . the more I learned about aids.
AdG: Hmm. . . .
AK: Because they use women, they abuse women, they use a lot of women, they want unsafe sex, they don’t want to use condoms, they even want dry sex–I really start to hate my gender.
AdG: Well, but it’s not so black and white. Listen, I don’t want you to think that this book is full of misery. . . .
AK: No, it’s an optimistic book.
AdG: It’s a story about hope, set against the background of aids survival. But it’s also part of the culture. There’s a culture, especially in the bush in some sub-Saharan countries, where people believe the myth that if you have sex with a virgin, then you’re cured of aids. So that’s why children are now being targeted. . . .
AK: Because young girls are virgins, and that’s why they’re raped by the whole neighborhood. . . .
AdG: A neighbor lady brings a meal by in the afternoons and her husband stops by at night to collect payment. That’s what I was told.
AK: Now, your reaction, and then we’ll go on to John van den Heuvel.
Min: It’s just terrible. I think there are entire villages where a third or a quarter of the population are infected with hiv/aids, and eventually die from it. It’s the plague, it’s just like when the black plague hit Europe.
AdG: Yes, that’s right. I interviewed a Zulu chief, and he has 500 families under him and he said that indeed, 70 percent of his people are dying. Our generation–people between the ages of 25-50–has more or less died out. Children raise themselves, teenagers raise the little ones, or the grandmothers do it. But the grandmothers are all from Nelson Mandela’s generation and have battled apartheid, while working three jobs in nice houses belonging to whites, and now they have to raise yet another generation, and earn the school fees for them, as well.
AK: Okay, thank you for coming.

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