Mokum: alternative guide to Amsterdam

MOKUM, A guide to Amsterdam is an almost 200-page-thick guide that does everything your average travel guide tries to avoid. A traditional guide assists the traveller in negotiating a safe passage through the limitless choices that present themselves. MOKUM, by contrast, is decidedly subjective, offers almost sixty authors the chance to elaborate at length, steers clear of every image you expect from Amsterdam, and guides the reader directly to the no-go zones.

‘Liberty City’ is splashed in big letters across the cover of the guide. But that is ironically intended, or at least in an investigatory manner only. Because the book starts with the web of visa regulations designed to keep foreigners out of the Netherlands. There then follows a description of recent regulations aimed at reducing the number of prostitutes, hash bars and squats in Amsterdam. And there’s an article entitled ‘A-social housing, step into a ten year queue and wait for a miracle’ that deals with the problem of the deadlocked Amsterdam housing market. Elsewhere you come across a black-and-white photo of the ADM site where 150 people live. After fifteen years as a free port the site is now earmarked for clearance. The guide cites one of the residents: ‘Amsterdam has lost its liberty’.

Amsterdam was no place of refuge in the past either. The book contains an 18-page list of 21,662 addresses compiled by Amsterdam municipal officials during the second World War so that the Germans could deport more than 60,000 Jewish citizens from these addresses. Also included are articles about the Dutch culture of tolerance — which is in fact an effective way of incorporating subversive elements (squatters, environmental activists) into the legal system and thus taking the sting out of them — and other articles that dispel any romantic notions about a free city state.

But what is Amsterdam then according to the guide? The blurb on the back promises unique navigational tools, the result of personal commitment to and admiration for the city. The reader must take the lead in turning the city into a Liberty City. ‘Become an urban actor!’

Fairly traditional walking tours lead the reader through lesser-known places like the Bijlmer district, the Eastern Port district and Slotermeer (Van Eesteren Walk). Fairly conventional content of this sort alternates with absurdist contributions to the book. A picture postcard, for example, depicts 31 existing subcultures in Amsterdam that are considered potential militias. Imagine that homosexuals teamed up to form an armed gay front that defended its territory around the Homo Monument, or that hipsters with their ‘fixies’ joined forces to form a Fixed Gear Patrol in the area around the NDSM dockyard. The guide also contains a manual for burqa spotting, as if it was a rare species of bird. ‘It will often take years to spot a burqa in Amsterdam,’ the books states. Even on sophisticated journeys lasting days through supposed burqa hotbeds like Metro 50 and Tram 1 towards Osdorp, the authors failed to spot a single burqa.

So a funny book. One that also includes a summary of the secret and forbidden places in Amsterdam: ‘Try to get in (and get caught by the police)’. Among them are the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, for example, in the south-east, the second-biggest internet exchange in the world, and the naval basis on the IJ waterway, the most heavily protected area of Amsterdam.

That said, the book is primarily an emotional roller coaster, especially in the way it effortlessly jumps from serious subjects to enigmatic and corny contributions. MOKUM is ironic and deadly serious at the same time. And that is a heavy combination for the average reader who simply wants to know what he can do with the guide. Perhaps that makes this book so typically Dutch. It’s the result of a negotiated compromise, in which difficult decisions seem to have been avoided. With half the number of contributions — in other words without the reams of text but with the tools (maps, walks) for an invigorating use of the city — it might genuinely have been able to compete with the Lonely Planet.