Mirte Karsten (Leiden University)

The world exists like a tapestry of culture and traditions. In some places the unique pieces of cloth are chaotically interwoven with each other, in others the original pattern is kept more neatly. Nonetheless, there is hardly any piece that remains completely untouched – free from interaction with the others. The question of which pattern belongs to whom becomes more complex with the mobility and exchanges of our current day and age. With this, the locality of  heritage also shifts. The questions linger… does heritage belong to a place? Does it belong to a thing? Does it belong to people? And if so, who does it belong to?

Intangible heritage has the power to transcend the boundaries of both space and time. Festivals, medicinal practices, food, dances and musical performances can be spread far and wide. All the while they carry the soul of the culture and context it was once born out of. With its power, intangible heritage can be the thread in between the pieces of the tapestry – it can teach, bring together and strengthen the solidarity. It can help blend, find space and facilitate the coexistence of different patterns. However, intangible heritage can also be the exclusive pattern for a specific cloth. It can be claimed, protected and set apart. For with all the weaving and sewing, there comes the danger of appropriation. Intangible heritage thus presents a very fine line of tension from which to investigate the blurry confines of culture, knowledge and the groups that carry it.

In this entry, we travel from Leiden, where the entire town is turned upside down in October to celebrate freedom from the Spaniards almost 450 years ago, to the world of African cuisine at the reach of people in The Netherlands. Then we go to Morocco, especially to Imilchil a high atlas village where a traditional festival is celebrated every year in September. During this event the cultural heritage of the tribe of Ait Hadiddou is presented to tourists and other outsiders. We finally arrive in Brazil in order to find and hear the voices of indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon about bioeconomy and what is their perception on the use of their intangible knowledge in this new worldwide spread idea of economy.

We hope you enjoy the trip!

Streets coloured red and white, the smell of hutspot in the air and seagulls flying happily with their new catch of herring while the original owner is left with disappointment. Flickering lights and continuous sounds that trap people in a rush of adrenaline and showers of beer on the dancefloor.

One of the many live music sites in the city centre during 2 & 3 October (Mirte Karsten)

Leiden comes fully to life as soon as the 3rd of October approaches; the whole town celebrates ‘Leidens Ontzet’. The liberation of the Spanish siege has for nearly 450 years captured the time, attention and heart of many, many people in Leiden. ‘Echte Leienaren’ (the ‘real’ inhabitants of Leiden, the ones born and raised in Leiden) fuse with students, day tourists, ‘nieuwe Nederlanders’ (people with a migrant background) and people from neighboring towns to celebrate this very local piece of history – and present. Connection, to each other and to the city, seems to be the most vital element of this time of year. And yet, these general sentiments of solidarity do not seem to exceed any dichotomy. In my research I have set out to map different people’s traditions during these days and their viewpoints to the celebratory event to find out what this piece of intangible heritage could tell me about the different degrees of belonging in the city – especially interesting in a city so continuously subject to waves of lots of new people every year due to its university.

Indeed, there are lots of traditional activities spread out across the city that bring the people of Leiden together in these early days of fall. I had the privilege to speak to a chairwoman of the 3 October Vereeniging about the organization of these activities and the intentions behind them. Little did I know from my own experience celebrating Leidens Ontzet as a student that the whole month of September is already filled with concerts for members of the association and in elderly homes, a ‘taptoe’ – which is a word oddly specific that I guess I can only describe by referring to some sort of musical show or parade, inspired by military traditions but now in Leiden carried by the sports associations – and the ‘(mini)koraal’, another musical event where songs about Leidens Ontzet, or by now Leiden in general are sung. These are just a few examples of events upon which people are brought together in a sense of solidarity to each other and to the city.

After learning about all the traditions and events organized by the 3 October Vereeniging, I was inspired to interview more people in hopes of getting an image of what Leidens Ontzet looks like for different people. I did a focus group with students living in student housing and I interviewed 4 people who were raised in Leiden. When asked what they liked about Leidens Ontzet, all of my interviewees, regardless of their time living in Leiden, responded with a similar answer. ‘Gezelligheid’, a typically Dutch word that is almost impossible to be translated but refers to a good atmosphere and a good time in connection to others. This ‘gezelligheid’ was often brought into relation with the people my respondents chose to celebrate these days with, but was also used to describe the state of the city as a whole. Especially the ones who grew up in Leiden noted that they really appreciated it that during these days, you could run into anyone and have a good time with them – reconnecting long lost friends from basketball or former classmates from elementary school.

The theme of connection was most prevalent in my conversations with the people who grew up in Leiden. These people grew up on the stories of the history that ever since elementary school were repeated, puppets impersonating the figures of Van der Werff and Van Hout for the little ones and they still know the songs they practiced for the Minikoraal by heart, and fondly so. The idea that the sentiments towards the city were warmest and strongest among these people who grew up in Leiden is of course not groundbreaking, apart from how much people like Leiden on an individual level, I will agree with one of my interviewees who noted, ‘the more you know about something, the more it moves you’.

Yet, Leidens Ontzet also attracts the many who know Van der Werff mainly as a café and only vaguely as the mayor who was prepared to offer his arm as food for the starving folk of Leiden and those for whom Leiden might be just a temporary part of their life. According to the chairwoman, almost every ‘echte Leidenaar’ is a member of the 3 October Vereeniging. This might be a little different when we look at the students or other more temporary residents but according to here, the intention is to involve everyone who has a connection to Leiden of whatever sort. It is actually thanks to the student association Minerva that 3 October remains a free public holiday and this association, as well as others, is involved in the organization of some of the activities in collaboration with the 3 October Vereeniging.

Students also seem to have their own traditions during these days, some tied to the history of Leiden… others not so much. In most student houses the tradition of eating hutspot and klapstuk (meat) was continued. Hutspot has been central to Leidens Ontzet from the very beginning. It is said that when the Spaniards fled the town, they left a pot filled with carrots, onion, parsnip and meat. The pot was found by a young boy and these ingredients now make up the famous hutspot. This dinner was often accompanied by the occasional ‘rietbak’  – a most efficient way to have alcohol enter one’s system – some speeches (some addressing a little history of Leiden, others more focussed on other things) that usually end in… another most efficient way to have alcohol enter one’s system: red wine waterfalls.

Some students said they would go out into the city after dinner, others said they usually organised their own party. In the city there is live music near cafés, dancing in the streets and fair attractions to be entertained with (if one is not lost in the crowd right away). Barry badpak, one of Leiden’s musical icons, usually makes an appearance somewhere and the real ‘Leidenaar’ knows where to find him, usually steering away from the clueless crowd.

‘Gezelligheid’ can really be used to describe these evenings out in the streets together. But with the very ‘gezellige’ crowd also comes trouble. I very vividly remember the warnings I received when I first celebrated Leidens ontzet… As is tradition in a lot of big student houses, the lot dresses up in very formal and chique attire for the hutspot dinner. I was rather new to the scene and not too pleased at the idea of wearing a skirt and chique blouse but I was soon comforted by the idea that these clothes would be exchanged for more casual wear when we were going into the city… because one would otherwise risk some aggression from the ‘Leidse Arren’.

It seems common knowledge that fights are bound to happen during Leidens Ontzet. This might however also be mostly echoes of a past where fighting with students from Minerva was as concrete as a tradition penned into the calendar of youth from Leiden. One interviewee, who has been celebrating Leidens Ontzet for over 50 years told me that his friends, like many, made it an activity to go look for trouble at the association and that back in the days riots were common.

Some context might be needed here. The gap between students in Leiden and the so-called common workers is not taken too lightly in Leiden. I myself am often witness to the ways in which students act out their elitist and prominent ways – mostly in a mock tone that gets used one too many a time to be just a joke. To discern oneself from the ‘commoners’ and emphasize the ‘we’re the top of the society’ narrative is a running… joke? Hence, there seems to be some tension between the working class of Leiden and the University ‘preppies’ that has long been withstanding changing dynamics in the city.

Today, this tension might be most obvious in the rather obnoxious tradition of students dressing up as ‘Leidse arren’ – which usually means wearing anything to look as cheap as possible. It is during these days rather obvious to spot who decided to play dress up and it is also quite obviously a mockery.

However, though unity is not exactly what I would call it, it became clear that the atmosphere has become significantly better in the past decades. The gap seems to have become smaller and when asked about feelings of safety, everyone now told me mostly positive things and that everyone was well-spirited and in harmony during Leidens Ontzet – with the occasional exception of drunken collisions.

And so we see that this piece of heritage brings many different people together. Such a local celebration enables us to ask questions about the degrees of belonging, elements of connection and the confines and of an ‘in-group’. Whereas the student who will leave in 2 years might be happy to celebrate something but able to do without, the Leidenaar cannot and does not want to imagine an October where the streets are not coloured red and white and the echoes of Jan Hout and Pieter van der Werff do not sound in the voices of the choir.

Monument Leidens Ontzet depicting Willem van Oranje, Louis de Boisoit, Jan van der Does and Jan van Hout – The heroes of Leidens Ontzet (Mirte Karsten)

This blog is part of the Group Intangible Heritage blogs.

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Voices that are not being heard when we talk about bioeconomy

Defending his own viewpoint: the case of Imilchil festival

About the author

Mirte Karsten is a Bachelor’s student in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. Her topics of interest are African Dynamics, Medical Anthropology, Anthropology of Religion, Diversity and power relations.