Iraqi-Dutch novelist Rodaan Al Galidi speaks to us about writing the asylum process, language and the value of humour.
PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
I want to ask, first, about a word often used in relation to asylum systems, and one that I’ve seen deployed in reviews of your latest title, Two Blankets, Three Sheets: Kafkaesque. Do you think that’s an accurate way to describe the dark bureaucratic absurdities that the book figures?
Yes, because Kafkaesque means finding yourself in a situation where reality looks like a nightmare, and a nightmare like reality. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds himself changed into an insect. I was a human, and then I woke up in the Asylum Seeker Centre (ASC) and found myself changed into an asylum seeker. So, yes, it’s a very accurate word.
We asylum seekers are looked at like that: nobody wants us, but where should they throw us?
There’s a powerful metaphor that you’ve used in the past: that wars and indeed nation-states treat asylum seekers as ‘chemical waste’. Could you speak a little more on that comparison?
Chemical waste is dangerous when it is beside you. But where should you throw it to remove the danger? If you do nothing, it will, just by its presence, hurt you, and the next generation, and the environment, and humanity at large. But if you throw it elsewhere, its presence will hurt another group of people in the same way. We asylum seekers are looked at like that: nobody wants us, but where should they throw us? We are a problem, and the solution is a problem for another; we are a problem – a circular problem.
Both those questions were a little about language, which is something I want more explicitly to ask you about: you write in Dutch, a tongue you learnt without recourse to language teaching. What does it mean, now, for you to write in Dutch? And does Arabic continue to influence your writing?
Living in Iraq, I grew up with Russian, English, German and French literature translated into Arabic. I found the European literature freer; writers were not scared to say what they believed. From then onwards, I wanted to write in a European language in which I could, somehow, be myself. When I first started writing in Dutch, Arabic influenced what I wrote. But now I have a big problem: I am beginning to think in Dutch, though I am not Dutch. It is as if a motor from a Mercedes has been put into a Toyota. It’s difficult, driving without a license. But I manage to avoid accidents.
Two Blankets, Three Sheets is deeply interested in people. If there’s one thing an asylum centre has, it’s people – 500, in your protagonist Samir’s case. Is there a conscious decision, in writing about a system and experience whose stock-in-trade is dehumanisation, to inversely represent the richness of humanity?
In the ASC, we weren’t allowed pets. There was nothing there: no rabbit, no mouse – just people. We weren’t allowed to travel, the longest journey being a trip, once or twice a week, to the local Aldi. So there was nothing to write about other than the people. I saw how a humanmade system – the Dutch Asylum Seeker system – treats people in an inhuman way. In a court of law, you are not guilty until proven so. In the ASC, you are not human until you get a piece of paper from the system. I think I didn’t answer you, so I’ll answer again: I didn’t make a conscious decision to write like this; the situation chose it. It was a rich situation, in a way. You live with 500 people and each of them could be the central character of a book. I was living, then, in the book that I wrote.
We were laughing with tears in our eyes for something we should cry about with sorrow. But we had to, because humour can save you from violence.
The book is also deeply amusing, at points. How vital is comedy in the situation you render?
I come from Iraq – from the fabric of wars, victims and perpetrators. If you don’t have comedy or humour, there, reality will destroy you. Once, a bomb fell a few hundred meters from our house in Bagdad, and me and my brothers laughed and laughed because we thought it had maybe fallen onto the house of our terrible aunt. Can you imagine? We were laughing with tears in our eyes for something we should cry about with sorrow. But we had to, because humour can save you from violence.
Finally, I want to ask who this book is for? You’ve been a writer of, as it were, several countries and no country, and I wonder who you most want to reach with your writing.
The people I would most want to read it are the people who will be the refugees of the future. I want to tell them that life is not a dream when you have to leave your country, not as a student, a businessman or a tourist, but as a refugee. Those – the people who do not realise that they might be the asylum seekers of tomorrow – are the people who need to read it. To learn that life is not always a dream.
Rodaan Al Galidi is a poet and writer. Born in Iraq and trained as a civil engineer, he has lived in the Netherlands since 1998. As an undocumented asylum seeker he did not have the right to attend language classes, so he taught himself to read and write Dutch. His novel De autist en de postduif (‘The Autist and the Carrier Pigeon’) won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011—the same year he failed his Dutch citizenship course. Two Blankets, Three Sheets, translated into English by Jonathan Reeder, already a bestseller in the Netherlands, is his most successful novel to date.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.