Translated from Dutch by Jonathan Reeder
I like to read Dutch books during Dutch book week, and this year I have chosen from my Dutch lit TBR from World Editions. (They do do a fine line in Dutch literature, if ever you’re hunting for something Dutch to read). I was super curious to find out what happened to Samir , an Iraqi refugee, once he left the asylum seekers centre where he had been waiting for a residence permit for … 9 years, nine months, one week and three days! Absurd, but a true reflection of the author’s own experience and the story of that waiting is recounted in Two Blankets, Three Sheets.
The absurdity continues. Samir seeks information on how to travel to Tarifa, the southernmost tip of Europe. (Who can blame him for wanting to see the back of Holland.) But he finds that the permit he has been given only allows him to stay in Holland. He cannot leave and come back until he is a bona fide Dutch citizen. And for that he must take civic lessons, and learn to speak Dutch. The irony being that the conversation with the official is being held with Samir speaking fluent Dutch. Oh yes, and he must go on welfare. But Samir has just been holed up in an ASC for nine years, nine months, one week and three days. He wants to work, to be active, to contribute.
He decides to go under the grid. Picking up work where he can, dependent on the goodwill of other to secure a variety of accommodations; in a garden shed, a box room in some student digs, a high rise from hell in a bad part of town. The “from hell” is my addition. It may be a flat occupied by an unspecified numbers of Muslim men, from various countries, all in the same boat as Samir, but at least there is company and life there. At one point, when Samir is living in a small Dutch house on his own, subletting until the owner can sell, he is very lonely. He struggles with the silence, the street that is empty when everyone is out working. The lack of friendship, the difficulty of making Dutch friends when he is such an obvious standout.
Unbeknown to himself, he already knows how to overcome this hurdle. During his stay in the garden shed, he falls in love with a girl called Leda. His walks with her and her dog, Diesel, are the happiest moments in this phase of his life. The love affair is doomed; Leda’s dark side is darker that Samir’s experiences, but at one point she gifts him the dog’s leash and ball, Samir notices that dogs always act as ice-breakers, and so he begins to take an imaginary dog for a walk. Soon there are plenty of Dutch people willing to converse with him. Of course, the dog is always chasing rabbits … or something!
The main theme of The Leash and the Ball is culture shock. There are many passages such as this:
You cannot compare a Dutch village to an Iraqi one. Whereas in Iraq the dogs lie in wait in order to bite you, in a Dutch village it’s the solitude that lurks. To me, the word village means “factory for fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and soldiers” (since village children in Iraq do not go to school, the boys enlist in the army at eighteen). In a Dutch village you see tractors and barns, fields of potatoes, carrots, and on-ions, but not a single Dutch person sweating out in the fields, chasing his neighbor’s cattle from his orchard, or struggling to coax more water out of the ground. It’s as though the village runs itself. I was surprised to discover that even the smallest village in the Netherlands has a supermarket, where to my even greater surprise you can buy all sorts of fruit and vegetables without seeing the trees they grow on, or those trees having the climate they need.
Samir remains admirably plucky, moving from one absurd situation to another. (His time as a chicken catcher has to be read to be believed). Yet there are two times when he is overwhelmed (both connected with Leda) and during those times he beats a retreat to a monastery. Throughout he has a fascination with photograph albums. He pores over them, rearranging them to form connections between past and present generations. He cannot understand how the Dutch have so little regard for their forebears. Strangely enough this fascination is going to be the key to unlocking his future.
By the end of the novel, Samir is in possession of the requisite papers, but realises that he needs to let go of a recent tragedy in order to build an independent future. The combination of a photograph album and a trip to Tarifa may just enable that.
Sounds like an interesting story. I think it is not always as easy for immigrants to find their way around our rules, regulations and customs.