Kader Abdolah (1954-) is an Iranian physicist who combined his literary activities with his job as manager of a packaging factory.
He had already published two volumes of stories when he had to flee the country in 1985 after the authorities discovered his involvement in the opposition to Khomeini. He had previously also been an opponent of the Shah’s regime. Abdolah took as his pseudonym the name of a friend killed in the resistance. He came to the Netherlands in 1988 as a political refugee.
As a child Abdolah had wanted to be a writer, and as an exile he was determined to continue writing. It took him a scant five years to master Dutch, and in 1993 he published his first Dutch book, The Eagles (De adelaars).
Only the title story is set in his native country; the others concern his life as a foreigner in a different culture and give a penetrating picture of the anxiety and discomfort of life in border hostels and reception centres. The volume won the prize for the best-selling first book of its year, and his subsequent books – among them The Journey of the Empty Bottles (De reis van de legeflessen, 1997) and Cuneiform (Spijkerschrift, 2000) – were received with equal enthusiasm.
In an interview Abdolah said: ‘If you love a language, you start to love a people. Now the IJssel flows through my thoughts, now I have a thousand cows in my head. Now I see green landscapes. The Netherlands is not just a country to me, I have made the Netherlands into a world, Abdolah’s world, and I love it.’
(Tr. Tanis Guest)
For the attention of the editors.
With best wishes from Kader Abdolah.
Five years ago you asked me to write something about the Dutch language. And it was about Dutch as my second homeland. Now you have asked me to write something about the Netherlands. Okay, I’ll do my best.
In those past five years I have learnt a lot, done a lot and seen a lot in Dutch society. And Dutch society has changed me together with the Dutch language.
Here are a couple of texts on my experiences with the Dutch.
First a story about a sad Dutch woman.
A sad woman
If I were able to decide who could enter my dreams, I would have admitted a different Dutch woman. But she comes. She disturbs my sleep.
I’d prefer not to hear from her. Not bump into her in the street either, but I can’t escape her, she’s inside me.
When I came to the Netherlands, like everyone else I had to attend a sort of integration course. Our teacher was a thirty-eight-year-old woman. She had a thin face and dark bags under her eyes. She seemed to be starving. A Dutch woman starving?
She taught us where we ought to shop and also that shopping trolleys were free. Every day she brought in a new list telling us where we ought to get meat from and where potatoes tasted reasonable and were cheap. She brought scissors with her and an empty milk carton and taught us how we ought to save stamps.
Shopping had become a difficult subject. On a copied map we made a scratch where Wibra was and where in town the Zeeman discount store was located.
We made notes, notes and more notes and remembered where we could get flannels with stamps. But we didn’t manage to put the lessons into practice. At the end of the course, just to spell it out, she wrote on the board: ‘Never to Albert Heijn, but to Aldi’ (the latter being much cheaper).
Thanks to her efforts we knew where we could get second-hand clothes. Because with so much poverty in the world, something that we, refugees, knew only too well, why should we have to buy new clothes? It wasn’t necessary to look at those greedy Dutch. She was convinced, absolutely convinced that we had brought our brains with us. We had all survived a war, a dictator, a famine. So we knew that life wasn’t about clothes, or about Albert Heijn.
She came into class looking pathetic and tearful. Her face never wore a smile. Her 1950s dress had never felt the warmth of an iron. Her long greasy hair never had the chance to bob cheerfully like a tail.
She was the one who destroyed my first fantasy of Dutch women. She even treacherously usurped the place of another Dutch woman in my sleep.
She frightened us with a long ghostly Dutch word. ‘The bailiff.’
Suppose you couldn’t pay ‘the property tax’. Suppose you stayed under the shower too long. And then couldn’t pay the bill. Suddenly the man would come, the bailiff. He would take your bed. Just when your Dutch women neighbours were standing peering out of their windows: ‘Look! That man, that foreigner stayed too long under the shower’.
She bored into my soul and tried to settle somewhere in my unconscious.
In the break she deliberately came and sat with us. She would take a wrinkled apple out of her bag and eat. No, she didn’t eat it. She mourned for the apple. She held it upside down and devoured it core and every last scrap and all. Then she placed the stalk proudly on the table under the astonished dark foreign eyes.
After eight years she still won’t leave me. Whenever I eat something greasy and cheap, she appears in my sleep. Last Sunday, late at night I ate a couple of cheap croquettes from an automat near Zwolle station. That night I dreamed I was getting married to her. My real wife shook me awake. ‘Why are you crying in your sleep?’
I’m frightened that if I’m ever allowed to go home, she’ll come too.
Later I had a problem with a ladder that I had taken home with me and didn’t know how to return. This is the story:
Finally the time has come to tell the story of the Dutch ladder. I don’t know how to explain it. I see the ladder every day.
In my parents’ home we had a ladder too, a big long wooden ladder. But I paid it no attention. Always standing there against the wall.
The story of the Dutch ladder is as old as my Dutch existence.
Seven and a half years.
I had been offered a house. When you’ve left everything behind and know few Dutch words you start by painting your still empty house. And I had no ladder.
I wasn’t allowed to bring home a ladder from town on the bus. I didn’t have a bike yet.
How had my father brought that great wooden ladder home from town? I had forgotten about the ladder from my parents’ home for years. In my new home, it suddenly appeared. You needed at least three men to move a ladder like that.
Painting the ceiling without a ladder is a terrible job. It gave me a stiff neck. Towards evening I went for a walk in the neighbourhood. After walking a little way I came to a pond. That intrigued me. I’d never seen a pond in a residential area. There was a house with a thatched roof on the bank. In front of the house was a skip and a pile of building waste. ‘Look! A ladder too! What a waste of that ladder.’
I was about to grab it. But I had not fled my country to take Dutch people’s rubbish home with me. ‘The new resident is taking our rubbish,’ everyone would say.
It was dark. How would they be able to see that the person carrying the ladder was a foreigner? So I put the ladder on my shoulder, bent my head into my chest and strode home through unfamiliar streets.
Once in the living room I put on the light. ‘How terrible, really terrible of those Dutch. A new ladder like that, why do they throw new things like that away?’
That was their business. I climbed up the ladder.
It took a little while before I understood their customs a little. Suddenly I broke out in a sweat. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I made a mistake. The ladder wasn’t rubbish.
I didn’t dare take the ladder back. I would have to wait until I’d mastered the language a bit better.
When the moment had come when I could explain my action, I put my smart suit on, combed my hair and went to the house where the ladder had stood.
‘Excuse me, sir, I wasn’t allowed to take a ladder on the bus. I put it on my shoulder. Your ladder. Shall I…?’
The man thought I wanted to borrow a ladder from him. He gestured with his hand to indicate that that was impossible and that he didn’t want to give any ladders away.
I must improve my command of the language. A few months later I knocked on his door again.
‘Excuse me, sir. The ladder, that long one. I didn’t know the rules at the time. So I put it on my shoulder. Do you follow me?’
He thought I must be off my head. An idiotic chap who was always talking about ladders.
A little later, when I felt I could speak reasonable Dutch, I knocked confidently. ‘That ladder again’, cried the man. ‘For Christ’s sake, I haven’t got a ladder.’
Seven times the pond froze. Seven times it thawed.
This evening I shall go to his house with the ladder on my shoulder and this text in my hand.
The ladder is still in my shed and it’s become mine now. The ladder has even acquired a Persian name: Nardebam.
When the ladder was dry in the shed, I had to go running in the rain with Dutch people in order to get to know them. Here is the story:
The weather and the word
You asked me recently if I would write about Holland for you now and then. Now that everyone is happily occupied with the budget, I’ll make some space and write to you about two completely different matters. The weather and the Dutch language.
You still climb in the mountains I take it. I don’t. When I came here, I put on a pair of trainers. For seven and a half solid years I have run with the village jogging group in the rain, in the cold and in the sun. Long tracksuit bottoms with a top? Without a top? A sports shirt underneath? A thick one? A thin one? No, you never learn. It’s weird. I listen to the weather forecast, even go outside. ‘Good weather. No wind. Right, I’ll put shorts on.’ I run to the start, but I see that everyone has tracksuit bottoms and windproof tops. On the way a cold wind gets up. Once I’m home I crawl straight into bed.
I don’t need to tell you that if I put on tracksuit bottoms and a top, everyone turns up in shorts. I rarely guess right. One time when there was a mass of dark cloud in the sky, I really didn’t know what to put on. Because I didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in the group, I went outside first and looked to see what the others were putting on. A fellow-jogger ran past. He had a tracksuit top and bottom on.
‘Aren’t you running tonight?’ he shouted.
‘Oh yes. I’m just going to change.’
Properly dressed I ran to the start. Everyone had wrapped up against the cold like me. But as soon as the trainer whistled for the start, everyone took off their tracksuit and began running in shorts. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had no shorts on under my tracksuit bottoms.
‘Aren’t you hot?’ asked the trainer.
‘No,’ I lied. ‘I’m used to it. I can take it.’
I don’t have that uncertainty just with the weather. It happens with the language too. Dutch is linguistically unique anyway. You have to imbibe it with your mother’s milk, otherwise you’ll never learn it perfectly. As a foreigner you can go shopping after a few weeks.
‘A kilo of potatoes, please.’
And you get them. Or you can read a children’s book after a year with a dictionary. You understand the story, but you don’t really feel it. After you’ve lived for eight years in the Netherlands you still keep your words in your mouth and speak them hesitantly one by one. You’re always frightened of using a wrong article, of putting the stress on the wrong part of the word. Of making the long ‘ij’ sound short. And making a short ‘o’ too long. And ‘ui’ is still a problem. I still can’t pronounce the word ‘schreeuwen’ (‘to scream’). Instead of screaming I cry in my pronunciation. The Dutch also have a troublesome little word, ‘er’. If you have thirteen ‘er’s, you can put six in the right place, but you’re stuck with the rest. The Dutch language belongs to the Dutch. If you disguise yourself as a Dutchman, everyone knows that you’ve got no shorts on under your tracksuit bottoms the moment you open your mouth.
I must go on learning, reading and writing the rest until I get better acquainted with this special people who live in this low country.
Yours, Kader Abdolah
By Kader Abdolah
Translated by Paul Vincent
First published in The Low Countries, 2001