Rodaan Al Galidi
(World Editions, 2020), Translated by Jonathan Reeder
Reviewed by Eric Ngalle
‘In Iraq, Dutch cows have a better reputation than Rembrandt.’ As I read Rodaan Al Galidi’s novel, it felt like I was going down memory lane. This was my story – a man’s relationship with his mother, his fake passport, his displacement, and the year 1998.
‘You won’t go hungry amongst those cows.’ His mother would laugh when she received the phone call, after years of crossing mountains and seas, that her son had finally arrived in the Netherlands, a place of the extra-fattened cow. And this is no biblical allegory.
As I read the book, I felt like a rat placed in a glass jar, trapped. Life for displaced people can feel like that, especially when dealing with authorities. As one reads, navigating the pages in this beautifully written book, one wonders what it would be like to have one of those passports that can just up and go, those passports with a queen’s seal of approval that you can cross world borders with, no problems, and even plant your own flags.
‘I left Iraq, so I didn’t have to soak my hands in blood, I didn’t come to the Netherlands to soak them in the toilet.’ Our hearts start beating fast, thinking will he, or won’t he? Are they going to trace the remains of his passport? Will that hasten his departure to the guillotine? In these difficult moments, the writer still eases tension with his wonderful sense of humour, and we see this funny side throughout the book. ‘The Queen of the Netherlands was an Asylum seeker too.’ Here, I paused and laughed. I once attended an immigration hearing for an Iranian asylum seeker who’d converted from being Muslim to Christian. In his asylum claim, he stated that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was an asylum seeker in Egypt. A week later, the immigration judge granted him indefinite leave to remain. However, in the decision letter, the judge admonished him for suggesting that Jesus Christ the Nazarene was an asylum seeker.
Along the way, as we seek new, unhostile abodes, we pick up new names, or as in Rodaan’s case, his protagonist is given the name Karim: he becomes his grandfather, 40 years after his grandfather’s death. This novel packs its punches. I chuckled at the idea of being born on the first day of the first month. I also found this amongst Sudanese asylum seekers, that date of birth is not recorded in the European sense. ‘I was born when I was five years old.’ Birthdays are determined by local government officials.
We repeat our stories, repeat trauma, triggering the darkest of memories. We have stories that we tell our friends, stories we tell immigration officers, and stories we will take with us into our graves. Though Rodaan ensures we read this book with laughter, the darkness, and memories of his home in Iraq lurk.
The detention centre is a melting pot for all sorts. The things that remind us of our broken landscape. Arrival and departure. Car honks. Police officers with long necks, batons, and guns. Looking through bus windows as time goes by. First lessons in a new language. An asylum seeker walks out of English classes because they do not want to learn another song. The relationship between the dog Rico and asylum seekers. I am sure on his deathbed, Rico wished that he had never come across asylum seekers. And the jokes keep coming, despite the horrid existence with strangers involved in all kinds of activities. The simplest things, simple conversations, ‘Don’t eat too many bedsheets, it will give you indigestion.’ Through these lenses, time passes.
And a consequence of being trapped in the same room with strangers, with people you do not know, time stops; a simple question like ‘How long have you been here?’ is enough to trigger suicidal thoughts. For black and brown skin people in the detention centre, people with white jackets and coats become ‘authority figures’. Those who realize this power, take advantage of it. Security guards pretend to be immigration officers. ‘So, tell me, Hussein, how did you get here?’
This book keeps giving; detention is compared to a bird in a cage. From here, I started feeling that zugunruhe, a migratory restlessness. This book spoke to me and will speak to many more people. It captures our journeys; how long must one stay in a place to become part of that place? Do we sleep at night? The answer is no, we do not sleep at night. With multiple snorers keeping you awake, you sleep between washing machines; having broken the laws of the centre, you close your eyes and follow the whispers of singing blackbirds, through the rains of your dreams, back to your broken landscape, the place you once called home.
As I read this book, I could not help but stop and think of what is unfolding in Ukraine, a father trying to convince their five-year-old daughter, ‘Those are not bombs, those are firewalls’. Read this book, and you will understand how to stay hopeful amid despair, how to appreciate life’s little luxuries, like working illegally in an Egyptian shawarma joint. But nine years is a stretch, and one of the things that follow us illegal immigrants is a constant thought of suicide. We do not have a home to go back to, we must start again from scratch. Two Blankets, Three Sheets has everything in it. It will make you laugh out loud, cry, sob, smile. Most importantly, it will give you hope, for truly, in this book, ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel’.