After Nine Years in Detention, an Iraqi is Finally Granted Asylum

22 August, 2022
Rodaan Al Gali­di (cour­tesy of the author’s web­site).


The Leash and The Ball, a nov­el by Rodaan Al Galidi
World Edi­tions 2022
ISBN 9781912987320


Rana Asfour


Dutch Iraqi Rodaan Al Galidi’s lat­est nov­el, The Leash and The Ball, released in the UK this month, picks up where his 2019 nov­el Two Blan­kets, Three Sheets, a fic­tion­al­ized account of his immi­gra­tion expe­ri­ence, left off. Samir the Iraqi asy­lum seek­er, based very loose­ly on Gali­di, has final­ly been grant­ed a res­i­den­cy per­mit, free­ing him to begin his life as a Euro­pean cit­i­zen after nine years, nine months, one week, and three days spent lan­guish­ing in a Dutch Asy­lum Cen­ter (ASC).

The Leash and the Ball is Rodaan Al Galidi’s third novel.

Although years in an immi­gra­tion deten­tion cen­ter any­where can seem like a prison sen­tence*, The Leash and The Ball is a humor­ous and deeply mov­ing nov­el that suc­ceeds best at prov­ing that even if you man­age to get the man out of the ASC, achiev­ing the reverse is near impos­si­ble. Whether one has read the pre­quel or not, one gets the feel­ing that Samir’s prob­lems are far from over. In fact, the author’s choice to kick off his nov­el with “a glass door” as a first sen­tence is a clear indi­ca­tion of the fragili­ty and pre­car­i­ous­ness of Samir’s present sit­u­a­tion, whose “cru­cial to his life encoun­ters” seem to “always hap­pen at the wrong place and the wrong time.”

Armed with health insur­ance, a sheet of paper that deter­mines he can offi­cial­ly stay in the Nether­lands, and a garbage bag full of old pho­to albums he’d col­lect­ed from thrift stores over the years, Samir nar­rates his life sto­ry after the ASC, as he flits between one accom­mo­da­tion and the next “like water need­ing to puri­fy itself.” His sto­ry leaves read­ers under no illu­sion as to the tor­tu­ous absur­di­ty of his sit­u­a­tion. Samir learns to nav­i­gate the cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences between the Iraqis and the Dutch and what inte­gra­tion real­ly comes up against in a coun­try full of incom­pre­hen­si­ble rules and habits, as well as cru­el and absurd leg­isla­tive process­es enforced on immi­grants who, in order to live in safe­ty, are left with no recourse but to endure. Espe­cial­ly con­ster­nat­ing to Samir, whose plan is to trav­el to Tar­i­fa, in the south of Spain — where the author also hap­pens to live these days — is not only that he has to main­tain the required five year-res­i­den­cy in the Nether­lands before he can be issued a pass­port for onward trav­el, but that he has to wait for the offi­cial IND card in lieu of the tem­po­rary res­i­den­cy paper print­ed on a sheet of paper that he was hand­ed at the ASC. All of this serves to extend the trau­ma of wait­ing that dom­i­nat­ed his life at the ASC, which he sar­don­ical­ly com­pares to “fish nei­ther still swim­ming in the ocean nor lying in a pan” — a pur­ga­to­r­i­al lim­bo of sorts.

What makes The Leash and The Ball vast­ly dif­fer­ent from its pre­quel is the amount of insight it offers into Samir’s life grow­ing up in a Shia vil­lage in the south of Iraq. It seems that with a sem­blance of “a life” on the hori­zon, he is ready to revis­it his cache of home­land mem­o­ries from which the final win­ter of the Iran-Iraq war would mark the last time he would ever be part of a com­plete family.

“Our house in Iraq was an address for mis­for­tune. A bus stop for shrap­nel wounds. A sta­tion for tears and grief, where the train of one’s life some­times stood motion­less for years on end.”

He tells of a broth­er, the first to flee Iraq to avoid con­scrip­tion into Saddam’s army after grad­u­at­ing from uni­ver­si­ty, before Samir and his younger broth­er fol­low suit when their turn comes up. His father dies before any of them can see him again. He recounts how anoth­er broth­er is killed by mor­tar fire, leav­ing his sis­ter to die of grief a few months lat­er. Yet anoth­er broth­er mar­ries his col­lege sweet­heart, a Sun­ni from north­ern Mosul — a mar­riage the writer com­pares to that “of a Ger­man boy and Jew­ish girl dur­ing WWII.” They too final­ly flee to Turkey. One of the sad­dest rem­i­nis­cences is when Samir recalls the death of a young friend who drowns in the Euphrates fol­low­ing a bet to dive into the water, despite the fact that he couldn’t swim. In Samir’s adult eyes the boy is rel­e­gat­ed to hero sta­tus for the sim­ple fact that heroes only die once, as opposed to asy­lum seek­ers who are fat­ed to die a thou­sands times in one lifetime.

Samir’s obser­va­tions of the Dutch idio­syn­cra­cies and man­ner­isms shine a light on the west­ern per­cep­tion of immi­gra­tion as well as on fam­i­ly, friend­ship, faith, and love. His inte­gra­tion into Dutch soci­ety begins in the shed of the Van der Weerdes fam­i­ly, which he shares with a friend from the ASC. There he meets Leda and her dog Dar­ius, whose leash and ball become Samir’s secret mir­a­cle to dis­arm­ing Dutch soci­ety and law enforcement.

“As soon as they think you have a dog,” explains Samir “you might be a Mus­lim, but you’re a good one, not hard­core or scary. Once they see that a dog can live with a Mus­lim, then they real­ize that they can, too.”

As Samir changes res­i­dences from a shed to a monastery, to a stu­dent-shar­ing accom­mo­da­tion, and final­ly an apart­ment build­ing that hous­es undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple and asy­lum seek­ers, dubbed Elvis Pres­ley, we are treat­ed to his inter­nal strug­gle to rec­on­cile who he real­ly is and the place he comes from with the per­son he is meant to become as a Dutch cit­i­zen. All the while we are con­scious of the pre­car­i­ous bal­ance between his pain at being ignored as an adult for­eign­er by the Dutch, and grat­i­tude for the bor­ing and tran­quil Dutch streets (rivers of time), neigh­bor­hoods (lakes of silence), and a city (an ocean of hur­ry) that remain “free of mor­tars out of the sky, free of mujahideen and soldiers…a par­adise of peace and qui­et.” Samir goes so far as to even­tu­al­ly opt out of using his tongue “as the loud­speak­er for the war in Iraq, so as not to mar the gen­tle tran­quil­i­ty” of his adopt­ed village.

Rodaan Al Gali­di is a poet and writer. Born in Iraq and trained as a civ­il engi­neer, he has lived in the Nether­lands since 1998. As an undoc­u­ment­ed asy­lum seek­er he did not have the right to attend lan­guage class­es, so he taught him­self to read and write Dutch. His nov­el De autist en de post­duif (The Autist and the Car­ri­er Pigeon) won the Euro­pean Union Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 2011—the same year he failed his Dutch cit­i­zen­ship course. The Leash and the Ball is Al Galidi’s lat­est nov­el. His pre­vi­ous nov­el, Two Blan­kets, Three Sheets, is also pub­lished by World Edi­tions. Both are best­sellers in the Netherlands.

Just as in Two blan­kets, Three Sheets, the nov­el brims with a col­or­ful array of char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and walks of life. How­ev­er, it is always Samir, a light­heart­ed, hon­est, far from judge­men­tal pro­tag­o­nist, whom read­ers root for as they bear wit­ness to his evolv­ing char­ac­ter and sense of self, for he holds up his iden­ti­ty as an Iraqi from an Arab cul­ture that is like “a cage that keeps clos­ing in on your soul until there is no room to move,” against that of a Nether­lan­der in pos­ses­sion of a cul­ture in which one can go places and dis­ap­pear into the wood­work if one so chooses.

To Samir’s con­ster­na­tion, both cul­tures come up lack­ing. At one point he writes, “I lost my faith in God dur­ing the war, my faith in the world after cross­ing the Iraqi bor­der, and my faith in myself in the ASC.” That said, it is dou­bly heart­break­ing when despite all of Samir’s best inten­tions to inte­grate, he dis­cov­ers that it is in fact the sys­tem, not the Dutch peo­ple who are more intent on war movies and an eter­nal war with clut­ter than with any­one else, that proves to be his most ardent oppo­nent, oppos­ing and under­min­ing him. He is forced to make ardu­ous deci­sions that cost him his roots, his ground, his water, and his air. That, he con­cedes, “is the price some­one pays for flee­ing, for leav­ing his coun­try behind, when it needs him to stay.”

Despite seem­ing repet­i­tive and slow in some parts, The Leash and The Ball is a high­ly engag­ing nov­el that comes across as buoy­ant, not with­stand­ing its themes of trau­ma, grief, a doomed rela­tion­ship, and immi­gra­tion ennui. Al Gali­di is a writer who obvi­ous­ly refus­es to suc­cumb to vic­tim­hood, and instead opts to unsheathe human foibles through the con­duit of humor, in which “the loud­est laugh comes from the deep­est hurt.” Samir’s first-per­son con­ver­sa­tion­al, every­day nar­ra­tive allows the nov­el an acces­si­bil­i­ty that is both enchant­i­ng and dis­arm­ing — rein­forc­ing Samir’s con­vic­tion that what brings peo­ple togeth­er is not reli­gion nor eth­nic back­ground, but food, music and literature.

The Leash and The Ball, like its pre­de­ces­sor, was writ­ten by Al-Gali­di in Dutch — a lan­guage he taught him­self to read and write while in the ASC. Both nov­els are pub­lished by World Edi­tions and trans­lat­ed by US-born, Ams­ter­dam res­i­dent Jonathan Reeder. 

The US pub­li­ca­tion of The Leash and The Ball is set for Sep­tem­ber 20.


* The case of Iran­ian asy­lum seek­er to Aus­tralia, Behrouz Boochani, detailed in the New York Times, is an extreme exam­ple of a life wast­ing away in an iso­lat­ed deten­tion camp.


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