Translated from Dutch by Jonathan Reeder
It has been seven years since Samir left Iraq. Now that he has finally reached Schiphol Airport, he thinks that the hard work (working his way from country to country, procuring illegal passports) is behind him. In a sense the hardest task is yet to come. His welcome upon claiming asylum is hardly warm, some unexpected rough treatment ensures, and when he is moved to the ASC (Asylum Seekers Centre), he will need to learn the art of patience. For it will be 9 years – yes, 9 years – before he receives his residence permit.
That is a long time to have your life put on hold – nor is it an exaggerated timescale as that is the actual length of time it took the author to obtain his own residence permit; the Dutch refugee process being so bizarre and byzantine that Kafka himself could not have dreamt it up! (Hopefully there has been improvement in the meantime.)
The remarkable thing is that Al Galidi’s semi-autobiographical novel is neither maudling or bitter. In a recent interview Al Galidi stated that a writer’s job is to be a cameraman. Just take the picture and leave the readers to form their own opinions. Well given the pictures that are presented (here is just one example of Monty Pythonesque absurdity) this reader laughed a lot, shook her head in disbelief even more, and formed a not very complimentary opinion of Dutch bureaucracy. When asked how the Dutch had reacted to the book, Al Galidi said that the Dutch are very self-critical, so had not taken offense. They struggled to believe how badly they had organised their system. At one point in time there were 26,000 refugees who had been caught in the system for more than 10 years! (No wonder there was a general amnesty.)
Now I always thought the Germans were sticklers for the rules, so it says something when Samir tries to escape (more than once) to Germany, thinking that he will fare better there. But the European Asylum Process has the bases covered. Refugees can only be granted asylum in the country they first claimed it. Samir is stitched up like a kipper in the Dutch net ….
… and consigned to spend 9 years of his life in the ASC which houses some 40 nationalities, speaking who knows how many languages, but not much Dutch. They are a colourful crew, so many different cultures, customs, cuisines, all sharing the same roof, coming to terms with degrading and time-wasting regulations. One of which is embodied in the full English title. Upon arrival the refugees are issued with a standard kit: Two Blankets, Three Sheets, A Towel, A Pillow and A Pillowcase. 3 sheets, 1 pillowcase? Not even a change of bedding!
The original Dutch title Hoe ik talent voor het leven kreeg (How I found a talent for living) was rejected by World Editions for its self-help associations. But it is an account of how Al Galidi’s alter-ego found the strength to endure and come out the other side of the most identity-destroying experience imaginable to pen a “memoir”, full of light and shade, dark comedy, avoidable tragedy, humanity and integrity.
“Should I be enjoying it as much as I am?” asked Rosie Goldsmith, who chaired a recent interview with author and translator. (Now available on YouTube.) The answer to that is “how can you not?” These pages come with much enjoyment and a fair dose of necessary enlightenment too.