Dutch department store gives Arabic letters a sweet twist

Chocolate Arabic letters, an extension of a holiday tradition in the Netherlands, help pave the way to assimilation for Muslims there.

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In the Netherlands, the name day celebration of the children's patron saint, Nicholas (Sinterklaas), on December 5, is more important than Christmas. It is thought that Santa Claus has his roots in Sinterklaas, who was known for his secret gift-giving. The theory is that it all started in the former Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam, currently known as New York City. Either way, Sinterklaas is an important national holiday for 16 million people in the north of Europe and has its own traditional candied goodies to go with it.

One of the must-have sweets for the Dutch is a chocolate version of their initial. Children will leave carrots and hay in their shoes next to the chimney when they go to bed, hoping Sinterklaas, who rides around the rooftops on a white stallion, will exchange them for a small present and some sweets - this is where the chocolate letter comes in. This year for the first time, the Dutch department store HEMA has offered something special for children from Arabic backgrounds - Arabic chocolate letters. The store offered two milk chocolate letters: the "S" and the "M". The design department picked the "M" because many first names start with it and the "S" for Sinterklaas. Both weigh 125g and cost ?2.95 (Dh16) a piece.

The HEMA (an acronym for Hollandse Eenheidsprijzen Maatschappij Amsterdam or Dutch Standard Prices Company Amsterdam) is well known for its contemporary design, decent products and ever-changing assortment. "Actually, our store is a small version of society," Marianne Noordanus, a spokeswoman for the company, said. "Young and old, rich and poor, men and women. Our employees and our customers are a reflection of that. When our chocolate buyer suggested an Arabic chocolate letter, we decided to try it out."

And it looks like it's a hit. Although the company does not want to give out sales numbers, the HEMA website confirmed the "S" had sold out before December 5 and reactions were positive. Strangely, it isn't the first time that chocolate Arabic letters have been in the limelight in the small country, which has a population that includes nearly 20 per cent non-western immigrants. Two years ago, the cultural institution Mediamatic initiated a project with young local designers to fuel the public debate on mutual understanding between cultures.

They did this by creating an Arabic version of HEMA, said Willem Velthoven, a concept developer and project manager at Mediamatic. "We wanted to make an exhibition that would appeal to a wide audience and came up with the HEMA because it's the temple of Dutch culture. It's value for money, everything you need, clean, fresh, great design and very contemporary." El Hema, as the installation was named, whipped up a flurry of media attention. It sold the whole Arabic alphabet in chocolate, halal sausages, affordable high-quality headscarves, school notebooks with lining for Arabic from right to left and duvet covers with Arabic poetry. "The HEMA wasn't very pleased that we went behind their backs," Velthoven admitted. "But we managed to work things out, because it made a lot of people very happy."