Memes and ostension: legend and life interacting
(Meertens Instituut, Amsterdam)
We have to accept
that fact can become narrative
and narrative can become fact.
In June 2004, an observing citizen of Almere saw a car driving by with a crying, seemingly panicky Dutch child in the backseat. The person driving the car appeared to be dressed in a long garment, wearing some kind of veiled cap, sun glasses and gloves. Because of recent incidents (not in the Netherlands but elsewhere in the world), the citizen thought to be witnessing an abduction by a Muslim terrorist, wrote down the number of the license plate and notified the police. After tracking down the license plate number, the police arrived at an ordinary home in Almere, where a frail Dutch woman, 49-year-old Jacqueline, opened the door. Jacqueline turns out to be the mother of the crying child, and she suffers from a rare light allergy. Outdoors, she needs protective clothing to prevent her from being exposed to the sunlight. Due to stories circulating about Muslim extremists, facts had just erroneously been misinterpreted.
The next story goes back a little further in time. It is supposed to have happened in Utrecht in the Netherlands. One evening, some Dutch friends end up in a Turkish restaurant, and they decide to have some doner kebab. They choose the garlic sauce to go along with it. Shortly after eating the kebab, the friends turn violently ill. They need to be hospitalized and have their stomaches pumped. After examination, the doctor asks them if they had oral sex that evening: sperm of several different men had been found in their stomaches. Shortly after this, the Turkish restaurant is closed down by the commodity inspection department after discovering that the garlic sauce contains the semen of seven different men.
Of course, the story is not true: it is a so-called urban legend or contemporary legend, internationally known under the title ‘Masturbating into food’. According to Dutch narrators, the events happened not only in Utrecht, but also in Amsterdam, Arnhem, Delft, Leiden, The Hague, Rotterdam and Enschede. The garlic sauce can contain the semen of one man, but in some versions of the story no less than seventy-two men had masturbated into the sauce. In most cases, the owner of the restaurant is Turkish or Moroccan. We have other ethnic restaurant stories in the Netherlands too, for instance about the Chinese using pets like cats or dogs or taboo animals like rats in their food, but the masturbation legend is almost exclusively told about Muslims. Although it is seldom explicitly said, the subliminal message of the tale is that Muslim men masturbate into the food out of contempt for their Dutch customers.
In Utrecht, Mr. Atteya got fed up with the nasty rumours about his Turkish grill room Piramiden and contacted the local press in 1996. In the newspaper Utrechts Nieuwsblad, he explained that the rumours were false. An official from the commodity inspection department even confirmed that no semen had ever been found in the garlic sauce. However, the newspaper article only made things worse: now even more people had read and heard about the nasty rumour, and Mr. Atteya closed down his grill room anyway. It was not the first time that the debunking of an urban legend in the news media resulted in an even wider distribution of belief in the legend by the public. For some reason, a lot of people seem to prefer to believe the urban legend – even though they should know better.
For most journalists and folk narrative researchers, the distinction between reality and folktale appears to be quite clear: an urban legend like the masturbation tale is untrue, even though the general public may believe otherwise. Fact is, that the boundaries between true and false are not always that clear. Anthropologists and modern ethnologists have tried to put the sharp contrast between true and false into perspective. Some rumours, tall tales and urban legends may have a grain of truth in them. In many cases there is at least a connection between legends and the general conception of reality, which gives people the impression they have good reason to believe the tales. This principle works the other way around as well: pre-conceived tales in people’s heads influence their interpretation of reality - like in the case of the woman with the light allergy. What is more: narratives and legends can be a source of inspiration for human behaviour and action. This is why folk narrative researcher Bill Ellis, in a somewhat provocative manner, puts it like this: “Legends are not folk literature but folk behavior”. Although the masturbation legend was untrue, the tale led Dutch customers to avoid Mr Atteya’s grill room.
Reality, or at least the conception of reality, brings forth narratives every day. Conversely, narratives influence people’s conception of reality, and consequently their daily behaviour. Therefore, the motto of this paper is a quotation from the anthropological legend researcher Linda Dégh: “We have to accept that fact can become narrative and narrative can become fact.”
In their narrative research on the boundary line between legend and reality, both Dégh and Ellis made use of the concept of ostension or ostensive action. Ostension is the occurrence of events and behaviour in daily life in the way they occur in legends. It is all about real-life action guided by pre-existing narrative - or as Ellis puts it: about “dramatic extension into real life”. Ostension is neither narration nor a theatrical act. Ostension is the more or less conscious or unconscious reproduction of narrative scenarios. In short, the concept of ostension deals with “legends we live”. An american example of this could be the appearance of poisoned candy and apples with razor blades during Halloween, well after all kinds of horror stories circulated. In their turn, these facts spread fear and generated new stories. Incidents generating narratives is, of course, considered to be the standard routine. However, Bill Ellis takes a more provocative stand in stating: "Events provoke stories; but it is far more likely that stories provoke events".
Besides ostension, we can discern three subcategories. To keep things simple, these subcategories distinguish the serious re-enactment of tales from the ‘prank’, the ‘lie’, and the ‘mistake’. As a (perhaps somewhat awkward and non-ethnic) example, I shall take the crop circle legend. For over twenty years, every summer strange formations have appeared in the crops, not only in Great Britain, but in other countries as well. Every year we have fifteen to twenty crop circles in the Netherlands. I am neither going to discuss the actual origins of these formations, nor claim any truth in this matter. I would merely like to point out that legend has it that crop circles are mysteriously put into the fields as a message by supernatural or extraterrestrial beings. The legend was first inspired by the encounter of simple circles in the crop. Nothing extraordinary here from a narrative point of view: just facts leading to tales. Now we will reverse our perspective to tales leading to facts:
Ostension. Every year the British artist John Lundberg manufactures crop circles, because he wants to stimulate belief in the legend. In a Dutch documentary he exclaimed: “As soon as people stop believing, I will stop making crop circles.” So Lundberg is clearly acting out the existing legend. To him, crop circle making is ostensive action – it says so on his own website.
Now for the subdivisions:
1. Pseudo-ostension. Dutchman Remko Delfgaauw decided to make some magnificent crop circles along with his friends in order to fool the expert cereologists. The pranksters waited for the believers to declare the circle for real (that is: non-man-made), after which they would reveal that the formation was a man-made hoax. From a prankster’s perspective, pseudo-ostension is the deliberate re-enactment of a legend as a hoax or a practical joke.
2. Proto-ostension. A narrator can transform a legend into a personal experience story. Through a process of appropriation, a folktale can turn into a personal narrative, into a memorate. A Dutch boy called Robbert van den Broeke claims to have paranormal abilities. He witnessed balls of light making crop circles on several occasions. Once he was even hit by a ball of light, after which he regained consciousness in a fresh crop circle. Sceptical farmers in the neighbourhood consider these memorates to be lies or fantasies.
3. Quasi-ostension. Pre-existing legends can lead to false readings of normal facts. When I visit crop circles myself, I sometimes encounter accidental crop circle tourists who inform me that there are more crop circles in the vicinity. When I go and have a look, it often turns out they just saw grain flattened by a storm. Infected by the legend virus, some people start to consider all downed crops to be circle formations. So quasi-ostension is a mistaken interpretation of ordinary events on the basis of narratives in our heads.
The legend as a mind virus and the role of the media
Tales are not only spread by ordinary oral narration and human behaviour, but also by our news media. Television and newspapers, for instance, provide us with stories on a daily basis. Some stories have a tremendous impact on human belief and behaviour. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) was actually triggered by the testimony of a Kuwaiti girl in tears before an American Congress Committee. The girl told how cruel looting Iraqi soldiers had taken Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators and had left them to die on the cold hospital floor. This story is in perfect accordance with other horror stories from other wars. Moreover, the story is in perfect accordance with the image the Americans already had of the hostile Iraqi soldiers. At the end of the First Gulf War, the American journalist John McArthur conducted an investigation into the story, which turned out to be fundamentally untrue: no babies had been taken from incubators and left to die at all. The crying eyewitness turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in the US – the story had been made up and carefully orchestrated by public relations bureau Hill & Knowlton and was sponsored by a wealthy lobby group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait. This re-enactment of a testimony-of-war-story in order to manipulate public opinion is another fine example of ostension. In an extreme case like this, and thanks to world-wide media coverage, such a story can lead to war. Although journalists are supposed to check the facts and report the truth, such an assignment cannot always be fulfilled. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as absolute truth, we have to acknowledge that events and facts cannot always be checked right away. Like all other human beings, even the most scrupulous journalists can fall for a catchy story. Especially when the message of the story (for instance: the Iraqis are evil) forms a perfect match with pre-existing prejudices and belief tales.
Modern narrative research does not only deal with human behaviour involving contemporary storytelling, but with the behaviour of these stories as well. A legend can be called a meme, which is an elementary cultural entity. What the gene is for human biology, the meme is for human culture. The meme is an independent building block of cultural information. As far as legends are concerned, the word meme is often translated as 'mind virus'. A legend is a virus, transmitted by storytelling from one human mind to the other. If the virus is contagious enough to remain in the mind as a parasite, it can successfully infect other minds by means of narration. As soon as the narrative parasite loses its power, it may die out completely, but in most cases it will remain quiet and resident for some time or mutate to regain its power again. The legend can wait until the time is ripe for its message again. Through mutation a legend remains fit to survive: it can – for example – adjust itself to new situations, it can appoint new scape goats or it can become more violent or horrific. Just like real viruses, people can carry the mind viruses from one place to another, creating new seats of infection. Although not in all cases, mind viruses can cause illness. That is: legends can sometimes lead to mass hysteria.
Mind viruses need not be orally transmitted: they can be spread by means of printed text, e-mail and pictures too (advertising agencies insert commercial mind viruses into our heads every day). The better subliminal messages of legends fit in with the world view of the public, the easier they cling to the memory. If the legend confirms what people want to believe, the narrative piece will fit into the puzzle of the people’s sense of reality perfectly. Anti-legends (making fun of the mind viruses) may serve as an antidote. Of course, the whole idea of a mind virus is kind of a metaphor: there is no such thing as a cultural organism with a will of its own and an inner urge to survive. Viruses are living cells, while mind viruses are just man-made ideas - they cannot be seen under a microscope. Even if a mind virus proves to be very contagious, there will always be people who remain immune. Still, if we combine the concepts of ostension and memetics, we could establish the following: contemporary tales are mind viruses that influence human behaviour.
Firstly now, I would like to look into a funny case of ostension, in which belief and behaviour were guided by legend. Secondly, there is a serious case, in which reality provided for a narrative scenario, leading to ostensive action.
Legend can become ‘reality’
In 1994, international news media covered the Dutch story of the false teeth that had been found in a cod. That year, Mr. Cor Stoop became seasick on a fishing trip and as a result his upper dental plate went overboard. Three months later, on the same boat, Mr. Hugo Slamat caught a cod, and while gutting the fish he found a dental plate. Along with a journalist, Mr. Stoop paid Mr. Slamat a visit, put the false teeth into his mouth and... they fitted perfectly! Of course, the story is very similar to international folktales about lost rings and other objects that return in the stomach of a fish. Actually, these folktales seem to be the most important source of inspiration for the interpretation of the events.
In fact, the false teeth had never been inside the fish for three months. The first fisherman's dentures that went overboard are still lying on the bottom of the sea. Three months later, the second fisherman became the victim of a practical joke by two taxi drivers, who were on board as well. They took along a spare dental plate from home and put it in the fish when Mr. Slamat was not looking. It was pure coincidence that these dentures fitted Mr. Stoop, because they were not his at all! A humorous Dutch urban legend inspired the two taxi drivers to use the dentures in a practical joke. This legend is about a fisherman who loses his false teeth while vomiting into the sea as well. A second fisherman wants to fool his unfortunate friend. He hooks his own dentures to his fishing rod, pretends to pull them up out of the sea and exclaims: "What do you know? I am pulling up your teeth!" The unfortunate fisherman puts the dentures in his mouth, pulls them out again and immediately swings them overboard, shouting: "Those aren't mine at all; they don't fit!"
Putting the dentures in the cod was an act of ostension by the taxi drivers: they more or less wanted to re-enact an existing funny legend. At first, Mr. Stoop and Mr. Slamat believed the events to be proto-ostension: a ring-in-fish-like folktale turning into a memorate - a real personal experience story. On second thoughts, it was a case of pseudo-ostension, because the taxi drivers intended to pull a joke and fool the others. The fact that people thought the dentures miraculously returned in the stomach of a fish, can be characterized as quasi-ostension: a misinterpretation of facts, based on existing stories.
Most news media that brought the initial story never bothered to make rectifications later on, and journalists ignored the connection with existing folktales completely.
Reality can become 'legend' (and false memorate)
We will start with the grim reality. At the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, the 13-year-old, retarded girl Tessa is the victim of a group rape more than once. Threatened with a knife and a fake gun, the girl from Amsterdam is molested and raped by fourteen boys between the age of nine and sixteen. The offenders threaten to kill her foster parents and to blow up her house if she should ever talk. Most of the offenders have a migrant background: the majority is Moroccan. After several months, the police is informed anyway. The delinquents are arrested, and the ones older than twelve are convicted. Officials of the Westerpark-district decide to keep the whole affair quiet, in order to prevent stigmatization and ethnic riots. More than a year later, in November 2001, a leak to the national press leads to general indignation, not only because of the shocking character of the sexual abuse, but also because of the decision made by the authorities to hush up the matter.
So far for reality. Now for the stories that imitate the actual facts. March 2002, a 14-year-old girl from Nijmegen reports to be the victim of a group rape. After investigation and interrogation by the police, it turns out that the girl made up the whole event. November 2002, the girl is convicted for reporting a fictitious crime.
This case in Nijmegen did not cause as much public disturbance as a case of group rape in Assen. On September 18, 2002, Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reports about the systematic group rape of a 13-year-old girl called Miranda. She claims that it all began with a group rape by predominantly juvenile Moroccans. For the next sixteen months the girl was kidnapped no less than twenty times by the group. She was offered to adult men as a sex slave. When her parents were from home, the boys came to her house and kidnapped Miranda, threatening her with a knife or a gun. Blindfolded and transported in a Mercedes with shaded car windows, she was taken to a bar-dancing. Threatened with knives and firearms, she had to lay down on a bed there, after which she was abused by several paedophiles. The kidnappers received money and hard drugs from the violators. One day, the terrified girl tries to escape the Moroccan gang and flees to Amsterdam. After five days, she returns home to tell her parents the whole story. The parents believe Miranda and in May 2002 they report the crime to the police in vain. Now Miranda writes an elaborate report about the events, and the crime is reported to the police a second and a third time. Still, police investigations remain slow and no arrests are made. Meanwhile, the perpetrators openly pass the house where Miranda and her parents live, and they intimidate them. Only after De Telegraaf publishes the whole story in September, the police seems to be willing to form a research team. In the same newspaper Miranda’s therapist states that “at least two other girls” are victims of the Moroccan group rape gang. Local politicians are indignant about the whole affair. Late October, after thorough and extensive police investigation, the Prosecution decides that the reported crime should be considered “not credible”. Social assistance was offered to both Miranda and her parents.
Apparently, the narrative scenario was in the air and contagious, because at the beginning of October 2002 another ethnic group rape was reported in Hoogezand. A 13-year-old Antillean girl called Tathnoeska Edwards claims to be raped by eight Turkish boys, after which they set fire to her home. On October 4, 2002, photos of the burned-down house are published in national newspapers like Algemeen Dagblad and NRC-Handelsblad. An interview with the victim’s mother is broadcasted by the local television station RTV-Noord. The next day, De Telegraaf publishes the story at large, including an interview with and photos of the girl and her parents.
According to Tathnoeska, on Tuesday, October 1, she was riding her bike from school to home. Suddenly, she was surrounded by a group of immigrant boys - perhaps Turks. They threatened her and claimed to speak on behalf of her Moroccan neighbour: they told her to stay out of his affairs and stay away from her former Moroccan boyfriend Saïd. After this, Tathnoeska received a blow and was allowed to cycle on. At home, she told that she was afraid to go to school the next day, and her mother reported her sick.
According to the girl, the next morning she was home alone, lying asleep on the couch. All of a sudden, there are eight masked boys in the room. They are wearing gloves and expensive designer clothes. They hit the girl because she refuses to have sex with them. While they are threatening her, Tathnoeska learns from their language that the boys must be immigrants. On second thought, she is no longer sure if they were Turks. She says: “Actually, I don’t know. They spoke a foreign language. They could have been Moroccans just as well. I can’t tell these languages apart.”
The boys tie her up and they try to keep her silent by cutting her in the leg with a knife. After that, they give her a small pill and they tape her mouth. Then they undress her and she is raped by all eight boys. The victim looses consciousness. She wakes up again when she hears her girlfriend Renate scream outside. The boys have already fled and now the house is on fire. With the help of her girlfriend Renate, Tathnoeska just barely manages to escape the burning house. Strangely enough, Tathnoeska is wearing her knickers and her top again, while the ropes and the tape have disappeared. Finally, she seeks refuge with her uncle Mou, who lives two houses away. The police arrives, the fire brigade extinguishes the fire, and an ambulance takes Tathnoeska to the hospital for examination. Later on, Tathnoeska and her parents go into hiding on a secret address. Meanwhile, the Turkish community in Hoogezand is deeply shocked by the events, and the initial accusations lead to major unrest.
Somehow, ethnic tensions appear to be on the basis of this affair, although the resentment seems to shift from one suspect mediterranean group to the other: Moroccan neighbour, former Moroccan boyfriend, immigrant boys, Turkish rapists... Who can tell the difference? Uncle Mou admits that there were problems with the Moroccan neighbour.
Father Jimmy Edwards is outraged about the fact that mayor Mirjam Salet of Hoogezand preferred to attend a meeting of the alarmed Turkish community, rather then comfort the Antillean victims. Mister Edwards exclaimes: “We have simply been dumped. But we are human beings too, you know. We have the Dutch nationality as well.” Under the circumstances, such an emotional statement is quite understandable, but it looks as if ethnic competition is playing a significant role here.
After elaborate technical and medical examination, after investigations in the neighbourhood and interrogations, on October 11 the police reveals that the girl made the whole story up. On November 8, 2002, the public is informed that Tathnoeska set fire to the couch in the living room herself. After she lost control over the fire, she decided to tell the group rape tale – primarily to avoid punishment, so it seems. In February 2003, the Prosecution demanded 50 hours of community service and five months of conditional youth custody against Tathnoeska. Again, social assistance is offered.
John Staps, a specialist in sexual offence cases, claims in an interview that after police investigation about ten percent of the accusations prove to be false. A story needs careful examination. The use of blindfolds or an indistinct description of the offender may be indications for a false statement. A false report of a sexual crime may cover up other actions or motives, such as revenge, jealousy, adultery or remorse over a sexual relationship. Adolescents can have other motives as well, such as unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease, loss of virginity, or just an alibi why they came home late. John Staps says: “They are inspired by stories in the media. This explains the extreme crimes, like group rapes. A common rape doesn’t even make the headlines anymore.” With the accusation of rape, one can plead innocence and put the blame on somebody else. When a child lies to its parents about a rape, it is often unaware of the consequences. At a certain moment, the story reaches a point of no return: it can no longer be withdrawn. As soon as the invented crime is reported to the police and hits the news, the consequences are awful.
Copycat behaviour and proto-ostension
We can establish that the reality of the ethnic group rape in Westerpark led to a story in the media that started circulating among people. The story is shocking, but for many people it fits in perfectly with the negative news coverage and general image of delinquent groups of immigrant boys. The affair in the media provided a horror scenario, ready to be recycled and enlarged by three adolescent girls within a few months. Their ostensive conduct very much resembles the so-called copycat behaviour that leads news stories to provoke similar events (we had an epidemic of fathers killing their children some years ago). Not only does this copycat behaviour lead to imitation of action, but to ostensive reproduction and re-enactment of stories as well. In a sense, it is the normal situation in which real-life events lead to new stories. Still, in the perception of the unsuspecting newspaper readers, the friends and relatives and other people involved, these stories are for real! At least for a while. In July 2004 it happened again in Paris, as Marie L. claimed she had been attacked in a train by Arab and African boys, because they thought she was Jewish. They used a knife on her hair and clothes, painted swastikas on her body and threw her baby on the floor, while all the other people in the train compartment looked the other way. After a few days, Marie confessed that she made the whole story up and that the cuts and swastikas were self-inflicted, but she claimed her story was based on the testimony of a Jewish friend, who really was brutaly attacked.
More than we realize, we find ourselves in a twilight zone as far as these kind of stories are concerned. A story can be true. The truth can be slightly stretched. The reproduction of facts can be filtered or coloured. Facts can be manipulated or can turn out to be propaganda. Stories and events can be re-enacted. A story can be an urban legend, but an urban legend can turn into a real event as well. A story can be a rumour, gossip, a lie... Not all facts are verifiable, and many people particularly believe what they want to believe.
If a story about a real group rape is appropriated by girls with the intention to tell that something similar happened to them, it is called proto-ostension: a shocking piece of news turns into a personal narrative, a memorate. In the Netherlands, we have experienced a similar case with the Jewish actor Jules Croiset in 1987. It was in a time when feelings started running high in a public anti-Semitism debate. Inspired by existing scenarios for extreme right-wing terror and kidnappings, Jules Croiset sent threatening letters to people in the name of the “Fascist Dutch Youth Front” and then staged his own kidnapping. By doing so, he literally acted out the hard evidence he needed to prove the revival of anti-Semitism.
Victims can count on our sympathy: they are fundamentally innocent - not guilty. The number of examples for the appropriation of violent and abusive scenarios can be extended quite easily. Not only examples of violence by immigrants, but also of the opposite: stories of immigrants claiming to be the victims of white racists. The stories need not be ethnic; they can contain any kind of rivalry. In 1995, 11-year-old Donny told his parents that a gang of youths in Groningen set fire to him. Actually, the boy later confessed he had an accident while playing with fire, but he told the story because he feared a firm beating by his father. The story caused a lot of unrest, and even though the tale turned out to be untrue, people living in the neighbourhood considered it to be highly exemplary. During a meeting, all the frustration about the neighbourhood came out: arson, theft, noise, battery, extortion, intimidation, aggression...
Exemplary function, the image of the ‘Other’ and demonization
Although the story of Donny was not true, in the perception of the neighbourhood residents the tale was an exemplum (an exemplary narrative in the sense of the ancient Catholic saint's life), in this case: a perfect example of life in a troublesome area. Donny's imaginary misery was a narrative representation of the neighbourhood's problems. It is almost as if the offenders in the story wanted to make the social problems as clear as possible.
In many true, semi-true and untrue stories, the fear of 'The Other' is essential. Distrusting 'The Other' seems to be a universal human feature, almost an evolutionary strategy for survival. We come across this basic distrust of 'The Other' in all times and all places. 'The Other' is different on account of categories as culture, politics, religion, sexual nature and ethnicity. As an adolescent, I heard and believed urban legends in which dangerous 'Others' like bikers, Negroes and homosexuals played a part. Later we had punk rockers and skinheads. After September 11th, the emphasis shifted towards ethnic and religious differences: above all, the immigrant and the Muslim became the 'Others'.
There is, of course, little political correctness in the criminalization and demonization of immigrants and Muslims. Still, stories enable people to speak their mind in a way that is intolerable in normal debate. The willingness to believe the tales, in which immigrants are portrayed as criminals and Muslims as terrorists, is an indication for hidden ethnic and religious bias. Lately, these prejudices are fostered by world news coverage, especially since September 11th 2001, and again since March 11th 2004, the terrorist attack in Madrid. At the moment, the Middle East is the scene of outrageous violence. In the western news media, Muslims are almost exclusively displayed as terrorists casting stones and bombs. In the Netherlands, the condemnation of the Islam as a "retarded culture" by the assassinated right-wing policitian Pim Fortuyn temporarily fell on fertile ground. Dutch news coverage of recent fatal cases of senseless violence, in some of which several Moroccans and a Turkish boy were involved, has only made things worse for the image of ethnic minorities in Dutch society. The media hardly bring any positive news about Muslims and immigrants: at the moment, their presence is considered a problem rather than an enrichment by many.
A survey in June 2004 revealed that only 14% of the white Dutch population has a positive image of Muslims. No less than 36% has distinct negative feelings about Muslims and 16% of them feels intimidated by the presence of Muslims in Dutch society: these people fear immigrant street gangs, terrorist attacks and future Muslim domination. Actually, 67% of the Dutch population does not know any Muslims personally: they just see them on the street or on television. Furthermore, the survey made clear that most Dutch people do not make a distinction between immigrants and Muslims anymore – all immigrants are considered to be Muslims nowadays.
These facts constitute a tremendous breeding ground for rumours and urban legends again. These stories imitate or exaggerate real life. They can be invented as a projection of one's own fears and delusions, or as a means to put the blame on others rather than on oneself. The stories can spread because they verbalize the latent fears perfectly. Subsequently, other people can experience the stories as actual facts.
Recently, stories have been circulating in Flanders and the Netherlands about a gang of immigrant boys: they stop lonely girls in the night and give them the choice between a group rape or a smile. In Flanders it was called an "angel's smile", in the Netherlands it was called a "smiley" - the group was even called the "Smiley Gang". When a naive girl chooses for the smile, the corners of her mouth are cut out from ear to ear with a sharp knife. After this, the boys throw salt into the wounds, to worsen the scar. These gruesome mutilation stories have existed in England since the 1950s: the method has been attributed to Scottish youth gangs, Chelsea hooligans and IRA terrorists. It is referred to as the "Chelsea Smile". Apparently, the story crossed the Channel in the year 2000 and surfaced in Brest, where a girl was supposed to be attacked likewise by Algerian boys. So in France the story turned ethnic, and the initial term ‘sourire kabyle’ (Algerian smile, which is actually a cut throat) soon changed into ‘sourire d’ange’ (angel’s smile). It looks like the tale travelled from the north of France to the French-speaking part of Belgium. It turned Dutch in bilingual Brussels and became a hype in the Flemish university city of Gent by the end of 2002. In 2003 the legend crossed the Dutch border and caused a scare for weeks. Especially young boys and girls warned each other for the Smiley Gang, which was supposed to strike in train stations, underground car parks and abandoned shopping areas at night. E-mails were sent around as a warning, the story was discussed on internet fora, and upset parents contacted the police and the press, who started investigations in many places, always with the same result: no victims were found, and hence no Morrocan or Antillean offenders. For a moment, there was a rumour that an adolescent girl in Soest was a victim: she arrived at school with a cut on her cheek. Her mouth was not cut open though, she told that she was attacked by four unidentified boys in broad daylight, she was never forced to choose between a rape and a "smiley" and the scratch soon healed. Still, because of the buzzing legend, other people immediately declared her a victim of the Smiley Gang. A clear case of quasi-ostension: facts erroneously interpreted by means of pre-existing legend. It turned out to be a case of proto-ostension as well: in March 2004 a teacher confidentially revealed that the cut on her cheek was self-inflicted, so the girl may have used elements of the legend for a memorate. Both the school and the media are concealing the outcome of the investigation, with the result that there are still children frightened of the Smiley Gang.
In December 2002, a legend with a negative message about Muslims reached the Netherlands. On December 17, journalist Peter van der Hoest wrote a column in the Haagsche Courant (The Hague) about the threat of Christmas Fair terrorism. The journalist is convinced that the story is true, and claims he knows the women involved personally. At the beginning of December, two ladies take a bus tour across the border to the German city of Oberhausen to do some Christmas shopping. In the shopping centre they stumble upon an abandoned bag which contains at least a 100.000 dollars. Just as they decide to take the bag to the police, a nervous man with Arab features arrives. He has lost his bag, and since he is able to give an accurate description, the ladies decide to give him the bag. The grateful man wants to take the ladies to a jewellery shop for a present. The women refuse and the man says: "I do want to give you something! That's why I'll tell you: do not return here before Christmas. You have to promise me that; do not come back!" Then the man takes off. The women started to realize, that a terrorist attack must be on hand, so they notified the German police. Once home, they informed the tour operator about the incident, who then decided to cancel all trips to Oberhausen. Finally, the journalist states that the two women are reliable informants, and that they still have not recovered from the shock.
The Christmas Fair Terrorism Tale already circulated for some time, not only in Oberhausen and other German cities in the Ruhr-district, but also in the Dutch province of Limburg, especially about the Christmas Fairs in Maastricht, Sittard and Heerlen. Newspaper De Limburger stated that, due to the persistent rumours, fewer people visited the Christmas Fair on the Vrijthof in Maastricht. Travel Agency Milot in Rotterdam actually shifted some shopping trips from Oberhausen to Düsseldorf because of the stories. The German and the Dutch police received a lot of upset phone calls from civilians, but a crime was never reported. Investigation by the police led to no result: neither the ladies, nor the Arab man were ever found.
Fact is, that the urban legend involved is already almost a century old. During the First World War, in 1915, the rumour circulated in England. After being treated well by a British nurse, a grateful German officer warned her that a bomb attack would be carried out on the London subway. After the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th, the urban legend made a tremendous come back. In the US as well as in the Netherlands, the rumours were buzzing about: the attacks had already been announced by a grateful Arab, or new attacks were predicted by such a person. In the Amsterdam subway, an Arab supposedly lost his wallet. As a woman returns the wallet to him, the man tells her not to go to London on a certain date, because there is going to be another major attack.
It is clear that the dreaded Other in the story changes along with social circumstances: in the past the enemy was the German, today it is the Muslim extremist. The urban legend of the Christmas Fair Terrorism strongly appeals to hidden feelings of discomfort and paranoia towards Muslims. From a white Dutch perspective, the subliminal and paranoid message of the tale is: "They are among us and they are against us." What is more, the symbolic value of a story about an upcoming attack on a Christmas fair is enormous. The story suggests that Muslim terrorists are aiming to destroy our western prosperity and our Christian roots.
This kind of paranoia was confirmed once more in the beginning of 2004 when a rumour and an e-mail circulated about a Muslim bomb attack in Amsterdam during Queen's Day, April 30th. Rumour had it, that Muslims in the Netherlands informed each other in mosques and through e-mail, that a major terrorist attack was planned. All Muslims were advised to either avoid or leave Amsterdam on Queen's Day. So they knew, but they didn’t want to tell us. Because the e-mail was actually circulating among the Dutch people, police and press started investigating the story... to no avail. Presumably, the e-mail and the rumour were started by some right-wing Dutch youngsters, aiming to incriminate Muslims and scaring people off to visit crowded Amsterdam on Queen's Day. Needles to say, nothing happened that day.
As far as the research into contemporary legends is concerned, these pessimistic narratives seem to reveal a growing demonization of immigrants, Muslims in particular. In the stories, they more and more get depicted as the dangerous 'Others': the untrustworthy outsiders, the violent ones, the terrorists, the criminals. It goes without saying that our immigrant and muslim citizens are not amused at all, and strongly object these incriminating images.
We can conclude that in daily storytelling - in which the media play an important and sometimes even decisive role - fact and fiction often mingle. Modern legends and ostensive action can have a tremendous impact on the perception of reality and they can form a barometer for the social climate. For ethnologists, the perception of truth should be more vital than truth itself. The question is why certain legends are believed to be true. Objective truth does not exist and is just a matter of conception.
Furthermore, we can establish that stories do not only imitate real life, but real life imitates stories as well. We tell, hear, see and read legends, but we believe, experience, re-enact and live legends too. The notion of ostension is used to comprehend the mechanism of legends we live. For other kinds of legends the notion of proto-ostension is used, namely when people tell legends as if they were personally involved - because they believe so, because they want to believe so, or because they want others to believe so. This goes for the Kuwaiti girl, for Jules Croiset, for Miranda and for Tathnoeska. Like in contemporary legends, in their kind of stories there are dangerous 'Others' who are guilty and not to be trusted: hostile soldiers, right-wing extremists, and to an increasing extent immigrants and Muslims. For ethnologists this is a cultural and historical fact, for the media this is a reason for caution and restraint, and for politics and society this is a cause for concern.
Legends and tales based on ostensive action are memes - cultural building blocks - and they spread and behave like viruses. They can infect journalists as much as ordinary folk. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a legend checker for MS Word. If such software existed, it would be nothing like a spelling checker, but much more like a virus checker. As we all know, a new and creative computer virus is able to by-pass the anti-virus software, because the software is always one step behind the facts and is only able to stop old familiar viruses. This is bad news for the media: in spite of scrupulous checking and double-checking, every now and again legends and ostensive action will contaminate the media, nearly as much as it does daily life.
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