“The bestselling books in the Netherlands are written either by ex-football players or wives of criminals,” jokes Rodaan Al Galidi. “But I guarantee you, refugees could have a good story when they tell their stories not with tears, but with laughter,” he says.
Al Galidi should know about a good refugee story. He has written one. Two Blankets, Three Sheets, his autobiography, is based on his experience as an Iraqi who fled his country to find a better future in another land. And the sharp-witted author turns the tragedy of circumstances into a treatise of hope, aided in good measure by humour. “This world has a lot of misery, and it is really necessary to laugh about everything. We need more fun and humour in this world. I love laughing,” says the author, one of the speakers at the online edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The Iraqi-Dutch author’s book, first published in the Dutch language, borrows its title from the two blankets and three sheets given to refugees at the asylum centres in the Netherlands when they arrive in the country. “I started writing in 2014 when a great Dutch writer asked me about the situation in the refugee camp in Holland,” he recalls about the point of departure for the autobiography. “I said to him that I would prefer not to talk about this, because it was not a very pleasant experience. But he insisted on sending him a story or a chapter every month. So I did and when it was finished, he said to me to send it to a publisher. And so, I did.”
Born in southern Iraq into a simple family with a lot of children, Al Galidi left with his family for Baghdad when he was 14. When he finished his school, he joined the university to study civil engineering. “My body was born in Iraq. My soul is still trying to be born,” he says. “All the people in our village were traders or farmers. My father had a small construction business. The area was more ready for dictatorship than for democracy because people had no time to read. And they liked very much to be scared rather than to be free.”
Al Galidi’s life as a refugee began even before he left his country. “When I finished my civil engineering degree course, I had to attend the army. Then I thought that the last thing I wanted to be is a soldier for my country, my president (Saddam Hussein),” he says. “So, I ran away. It was the best and the baddest decision in my life. The best because I am still alive, and the baddest because it changed me from human to refugee.”
It was not an easy life in the Netherlands either. “The local community loves refugees when there are just a few and they are scared of them when they are a lot,” he says. “But now, they believe one is too many. You can say now you are a dog, and the people will be okay and like you, but when you say you are a refugee, they will think: ‘What is this? A new problem. We have no time to solve our own problems and now we have this. But they are peaceful people, they didn’t kill me.”
Al Galidi believes it is important to tell the story of a refugee in today’s world of mass migration arising out of civil wars and conflicts. “It is really important that the people know that it was not the choice of the refugees to leave their lives, homes, countries. They were pushed to be refugees. Otherwise they would be victims,” he says. “If the refugees don’t tell that, no one will know. And no one will know this could happen to everybody when circumstances change. Refugees are human beings, like all the rest of the world.”
Al Galidi has never returned to his home country. “I never visited Iraq after I left, but Iraq visits me every day,” he says. “Even if I don’t give her my address, she can find me every time. When I change my phone number, she will still call me. Even when I change the colour of my hair, she can find me. And when I put on a mask, she can recognise me.”
Though he is unsure if he will ever visit Iraq again, Al Galidi’s love for his homeland is eternal. “What a country! I love her so much and she loves me, but it is like the love of Romeo and Juliet, a killing love. To be honest, in another life, I don’t want to be born in Iraq or the Middle East, but in Makassar, Indonesia (a former Dutch colony).”
When the book was published, Al Galidi was certain it would disappear from bookstores in a week. “I thought no one would read this book, or buy it. Who would be interested in a book about refugees? People like thrillers, detective stories or love stories,” he says. He was mistaken. Two Blankets, Three Sheets flew off the shelves. “I thought, my God, it is not so bad to be a refugee!”
Two Blankets, Three Sheets
Rodaan Al Galidi; translated by Jonathan Reeder
Pp 356, Rs 1,495
Faizal Khan is a freelancer