TWO BLANKETS, THREE SHEETS, a novel by Iraqi-Dutch writer Rodaan Al Galidi, does for the beleaguered political asylum seeker stuck in legal limbo what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 did for the hapless soldier trapped in a military at war. The comparison seems all the more apt given that the narrator and protagonist of the wickedly absurdist Two Blankets, Three Sheets has fled his native Iraq to avoid conscription into an army that Saddam Hussein blithely thrusts into one bloody conflict after another. Now, however, Samir Karim languishes in the institutional purgatory of the Netherlands. “Expectations,” he soon realizes, “will destroy an asylum seeker.”
Translated from the Dutch into nimble and conversational English by Jonathan Reeder, the haphazardly structured and episodic Two Blankets, Three Sheets is Al Galidi’s second novel. (His first has yet to appear in English.) It is a tale for and of our time, what with the ongoing mass movement of the persecuted and the disadvantaged from lands of war, repression, and economic ruin to countries characterized by safety and opportunity. Such mass movement is often followed by mass detention, which is in turn followed by years of waiting on the part of those requesting asylum. And the waiting, as Tom Petty would say, is the hardest part.
Or as twentysomething Samir, who arrives in the Netherlands on a forged passport in 1998 following several years of eking out an existence in Southeast Asia, puts it: “Imagine a building with five hundred people inside. Some of them have become exhausted or crazy from the endless waiting. The interior of this building then becomes an enormous grave, in which time is buried.”
The novel takes its title from the two blankets, three sheets, towel, pillow, and pillowcase assigned to each new arrival. “The term ‘asylum center’ was equivalent to ‘hope,’” observes Samir. That’s because one gains admission to such a place only after undergoing a screening process followed by a wait at an initial reception facility. Getting sent to an asylum center brings the refugee or migrant a step closer to obtaining status as a bona fide asylee — which comes with a prized residence permit. It takes a while, but with time the hopeful asylum seekers are disabused of the notion that they are anywhere near having this wish granted. The suicides, Samir informs the reader, usually take place after the fifth or sixth year.
Two Blankets, Three Sheets essentially consists of a (nonlinear) series of anecdotes related by Samir, and as such hangs together loosely. Aside from Samir himself, the characters are in the service of the anecdotes, for which they often do not need to be fleshed out, as the emphasis is on bringing into relief the comic nature of an encounter or illustrating a particular absurdity. There is also some retreading of ground here and there, and the occasional inconsistency when it comes to the description of minor characters who pop up sporadically. What works in Al Galidi’s favor is not only that he proves funny and poignant, but that the asylum center does not serve as the venue for all the episodes he sketches. Samir jumps between the asylum center, the seaside town in which it is located (the center is not a jail; so long as he checks in every morning and doesn’t take up work, he is free to roam the country), and back in time to Thailand, Vietnam, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Much of the amusement derives from the culture clash and misunderstandings Samir and his fellow refugees experience when coming into contact with Dutch people, whether in their new 500-person home or on the outside. Here, the humor is generally broad, but can be quite effective. More clever is Al Galidi’s portrayal of paradoxes created by combinations of rules. For example, at the reception center, residents who fall ill are offered basic medication. To obtain more intensive treatment, they must wait until they’re admitted to an asylum center, which is by no means certain. At the asylum center, sometimes they’re told that they can only receive the specific treatment they need if they have a residence permit, which is of course issued upon the granting of asylum, and can take years!
In the book’s foreword, Al Galidi indicates in a somewhat circuitous manner that Samir’s story, though fictional, is based on his own experiences. Perhaps keen to avoid giving the impression that he is unappreciative of his hosts, the author pointedly has Samir acknowledge, every now and again, that for all his complaints about the asylum process and even Dutch people in general, he’s better off than he would be in Iraq. Besides, when it comes to absurdity, Dutch officialdom has nothing on its Iraqi counterpart. In a telephone conversation at once hilarious and nightmarish, a weary Samir sounds out his brother regarding the prospect of returning to Iraq. This follows seven years of his living on the margins of society in Thailand and Vietnam, and before he decides to try his luck at seeking asylum in the Netherlands. His brother tells him that coming back is not a good idea, because the family has succeeded in bribing all the right people to officially pronounce him dead. When Samir asks what it would take to have himself resurrected, his brother replies matter-of-factly, “Your life.”
Fast forward to Samir’s saga in the Netherlands, and there remains the problem that asylum is never guaranteed. However many years of waiting are involved — as the novel nears its conclusion, Samir hits nine — the unbanishable threat of deportation looms large. Moreover, Samir sometimes hurts his chances. For example, by crossing into Germany illegally in the hope of claiming asylum there (no dice; his fingerprints indicate that his file is being processed in the Netherlands, and as such he must await the outcome of that rigmarole), he renders himself ineligible for a one-off scheme that automatically grants asylum to those who have remained in Holland continuously for the past five years. In a separate instance, when the United States begins readying itself to launch the second Iraq War, it apparently prevails upon the Dutch authorities to gather information from Iraqi asylum seekers in the guise of a new round of interviews regarding their cases. Wise to the ruse and pretty indignant about it, Samir refuses to cooperate.
Still, throughout his narrative, Samir hints that he is eventually granted asylum. This means that he will receive that much-coveted residence permit and move out of the asylum center. A happy ending, then, for the reader to anticipate. Right?
Not necessarily. Samir’s experiences with byzantine bureaucracy, absurd regulations, and existential limbo might yet traumatize him. And unlike the two blankets, three sheets, towel, pillow, and pillowcase that he will turn in upon leaving the asylum center, trauma isn’t something that he can fold neatly and hand to someone as he skips off into the sunset to begin his new life. Far from it. Indeed, despite that spring in his step, trauma will almost certainly dog him for years to come.