Book review: ‘One Thousand and One Nightmares’
Rodaan Al Galidi published the highly successful autobiographical novel ‘How I got talent for life’ in 2016, in which he talked about his years of residence in an asylum seekers’ center. In January of that year the book was chosen by the panel of DWDD as book of the month and was for many readers the first thorough introduction to the world of the refugees in the Netherlands. The book offered a glimpse into life in an asylum seekers’ center, but also held up a mirror to Dutch readers, because it described many typically Dutch idiosyncrasies in an unvarnished and humorous way. In 2017, Al Galidi’s short story collection ‘One Thousand and One Nightmares’ was published.
- Author: Rodaan Al Galidi
- Title: A thousand and one nightmares
- Publisher: Jurgen Maas
- Year of publication: 2017
- ISBN: 978-94-9192-140-7
The short story collection ‘One Thousand and One Nightmares’ is actually a continuation of the novel ‘How I got talent for life’ by other means. Again, foreigners in the Netherlands and the Dutch themselves are central. Some stories are exclusively about native Dutch people, of whom we experience a number of tragicomic struggles – often with relationship troubles. Others deal with life in Islamic countries. Difficult subjects are not avoided.
In ‘The murder of the putter’s song’ we read how the suicide bomber Aboesumeya blows himself up in an already half-deserted market in an Islamic country. At first he tries in vain to chase away a dog, because he does not want his soul to go to heaven along with that of an unclean animal. Then he notices that he has not ended up in heaven, but in his own personal hell: he must look forever at the suffering he has caused and listen to the song of a goldfinch that he cannot silence.
Not all stories are equally successful. Sometimes a fact gets stuck in his own bizarreness, such as that about a man who steals the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and hangs it in his own room, but is not believed by anyone when he says that it is the real Mona Lisa (‘Mona Lisa en the technician ‘). A few stories about typical Dutch hypersensitivity are also recognizable, but do not really have a point.
The strongest are the stories in which the Western and the Islamic world are confronted with each other, such as the poignant ‘On that beautiful day’, in which a Dutch and an Iraqi family sit side by side on a terrace in Istanbul. The Iraqis have fled ISIS, the Dutch are on vacation. One of the Iraqis recognizes the wife of the Dutch family as the employee of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who expelled him years ago when he fled Saddam Hussein because it would be safe enough for him in Iraq; she does not recognize him and does not realize how painful the polite-friendly conversation between the two families is for him.
There is also a tragic undertone in the story ‘Sleep well’, in which an Iraqi refugee joins a sleeping group in the hope of being relieved of his insomnia. The other participants talk about the typical Dutch problems that keep them awake: the death of a pet, doubts about sexual orientation, work stress, heartbreak. If the refugee starts to explain that he cannot sleep because he keeps hearing the banging on the door of the secret service that came to get his brother, or thinks about the execution he was forced to watch as a child, or that time that his house was almost hit by a rocket, all his fellow students fall into a deep sleep. The man concludes: “I think I can give a course that teaches people to sleep, but I won’t be able to do it myself.”
In ‘The terrorist attack on Kim van Dijk’ we witness the failed contact between a Dutch young woman and her Iraqi neighbor. The result is that the woman avoids all contact because she does not know how to end conversations with the friendly, but very verbose neighbor.
In addition, there are also many hilarious, sometimes downright cabarette stories, such as the beautiful ‘Sietske and the seven Mohammeds’. This one short satirical story flawlessly shows how communication between refugees and benevolent Dutch people can sometimes go completely wrong despite all the good intentions. The same happens in ‘The first working day of the highly motivated Edith’, in which an itchy anus is such a painful topic of conversation for an asylum seeker that he would rather simulate a heart attack.
But even in the serious stories the tone always remains cheerful; Al Galidi never gets heavy on the hand. Some stories evoke an oriental, fairytale atmosphere. In the story ‘The god of Saffa’ we read about an Iraqi who goes to India to buy a statue that protects him from terror. Saffa buys “a 5.5 centimeter stone god with six arms, a large head and a small tail.” The seller assures him that whoever believes in that god is protected from terror. And indeed Saffa miraculously survives all terrorist attacks. All of his family and friends also believe in the god and are also protected, so that the terrorists end up blowing up only themselves. When Saffa later goes to India to thank the seller, another nice punch line follows.
All in all, this collection is well worth reading because of the consistently light-hearted tone, the mild humor with which everything is viewed and the description of irreconcilable cultural differences that sometimes lead to hilarious and sometimes harrowing situations. You like to accept the few lesser stories for that.