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from the February 2020 issue

Rodaan Al Galidi Gives a Mordant Account of a Long Wait for Asylum in “Two Blankets, Three Sheets”

Reviewed by Matt Hanson

At once funny and bleak, this novel by the Iraq-born Dutch novelist draws on his personal experiences to expose the cruel and often absurd procedural challenges that immigrants must endure.

Often associated with dramatic images of war and daunting journeys undertaken amid precarious circumstances, the experience of contemporary migration and asylum-seeking gains an unexpected Beckettian tone in Two Blankets, Three Sheets, an engrossing and exasperating novel by the Iraq-born Dutch novelist Rodaan Al Galidi. The first of Al Galidi’s works to be translated into English, the book straddles the line between fiction and memoir as it draws on the author’s own experience as a refugee in the Netherlands to construct a tale defined by protracted delays and seemingly endless waiting. Citizenship and the right to settle in a foreign country appear elusive to Al Galidi’s characters, goals that they seem incapable of attaining but unwilling (or in no condition) to give up, the geopolitical equivalent of Beckett’s existential allegory about the ever-awaited, ever-postponed Godot.

After fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to avoid military service, Samir Karim finds himself caught in a seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic maze as he tries to settle in a new country. Seven years of frustrated hopes and failed efforts finally lead him to Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, where he arrives in 1998, counting on the Dutch reputation for receptiveness to asylum seekers. Samir soon discovers, however, that he is but one of many people arriving there with such expectations, and that the process for deciding who will be granted the coveted residency status is by no means as simple or swift as he might hope.

A new and strenuously long period of waiting then begins in the purgatorial limbo of the Asylum Seeker Center, where quotas on the distribution of blankets, sheets, aspirin, and condoms are carefully enforced and only very cleverly bypassed. These strictly controlled rations of basic goods give the novel its title and determine the daily life of its characters down to the most intimate details: “This meant an asylum seeker had the right to three orgasms and six headaches per day,” Al Galidi wryly remarks.  

Narrating Samir’s travels, with a focus on a period spent homeless and displaced in Southeast Asia on the run from immigration police, Al Galidi exposes the underbelly of United Nations idealism by chronicling the underground world of passport counterfeiting and the black market for immigration. Two Blankets, Three Sheets charts a geographical and psychological road map through the wildest country on the planet: statelessness.

Although written as a novel, Al Galidi’s book often resembles an eyewitness’s critique of international refugee law and institutions, written with equal amounts of earnestness and style. His is a dogged assertion of the personality and humor of the contemporary immigrant, relating his survival of refugee resettlement and the trials of restarting life in a new country, something that many of those he met in transit were not so lucky to achieve. Safe but scarred, he employs a satirical edge to cut through the euphemisms of politicians and international organizations to tell a story that is at once funny and bleak.

Al Galidi judges the judges, lampooning the labyrinthine and often absurd Dutch system for registering asylum seekers. Even the most apparently trivial bureaucratic procedures expose cultural gaps and economic inequities between immigrants and state officials; matters easily resolved in Europe aren’t always so simple in migrants’ countries of origin. For example, calling his mother en route to Amsterdam, Samir realizes they do not even know each other’s ages. When he asks for hers, she responds, “Eight wars.” Later, after suffering in a cold cell, he comes face-to-face with an immigration officer to whom he must explain that Iraqis do not have family names but are rather given a first name that precedes the names of their fathers and grandfathers. “Surely a civil servant working for the immigration services should know that among adult Iraqis, half have July 1 as their birth date, and the other half has January 1,” Al Galidi writes acerbically.

To avoid deportation, Samir flushes his passport down the toilet after landing in Amsterdam—destroying his documents is an attempt to leave the past behind and begin life anew. But as Al Galidi remarks, immigrants are, as ever, stuck between an impossible return and a painful birth into a new life in a foreign country.

The novel’s colorful range of characters allows Al Galidi to depict the multifarious (and often unsavory) experiences and opinions of detainees, migrants, leisure travelers, and locals in Amsterdam, Baghdad, Bangkok, and elsewhere. They collectively inform and enrich the emotional subtext of the Asylum Seeker Center, where the interminable wait is alleviated by the temporary relief of sex or instantly and tragically terminated by suicide.

Al Galidi lays bare and attempts to cut through the veils of ignorance that separate the refugees he spotlights from the officials and state agents who cling mechanically to bureaucratic procedures, rarely swayed by compassion.

Al Galidi wrote the novel in Dutch, which he taught himself despite being forbidden to attend language classes as an undocumented asylum seeker. Two Blankets, Three Sheets is a work of clean, spare prose, written in a matter-of-fact tone. The story sometimes feels less like a narrative than an essay, meandering through loose threads of thought toward a resolution as anticlimactic as much of the plot, or lack thereof. It is a labor of patience as dogged, we may think, as the experience of waiting for asylum for nine years.

“People might ask me if this is my story, to which I will say: no. But if I’m asked if this is also my story, then I will say wholeheartedly: yes,” Al Galidi writes in the foreword to his novel, denying exclusive rights to the suffering that he details. Through this homage, as it were, to his tragicomic immigration to Europe—one darkened by human rights abuses the world over, whether in broad daylight on the streets of Iraq or behind closed doors in Holland—Al Galidi fearlessly tells the tale of one man’s departure from all that is familiar to him and his attempt to find a new home. Two Blankets, Three Sheets is a tale of belonging and what it means to be human in a world that deems people less important than government protocols.

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