Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi (tr. by Jonathan Reeder) #BookReview #BlogTour

‘You have to take care, Mr Karim,’ she said, ‘this is your future.’ With the word ‘this’ she picked up the report from the first hearing. I was amused at the idea that my future would be determined by a few sheets of paper, and not by my health, my happiness or my dreams. Or a never-ending barbeque on the beach, or travelling the world on a legitimate passport.
Amsterdam Airport, 1998. Samir Karim steps off a plane from Vietnam, flushes his fake passport down the toilet, and requests asylum. Fleeing Iraq to avoid conscription into Saddam Hussein’s army, he has spent seven years anonymously wandering through Asia. Now, safely in the heart of Europe, he is sent to an asylum centre and assigned a bed in a shared dorm - where he will spend the next nine years.
Taking its title from the ‘two blankets, three sheets, a towel, a pillow, and a pillow-case’ that constitute the items Samir is given on his arrival at the Asylum Centre, and are the only things he owns during his nine years there, this book is the story of how Samir navigates his way around the absurdities of Dutch bureaucracy while trying his best to get along with his 500 new housemates. Told with compassion and a unique sense of humour, this is an inspiring tale of survival, a close-up view of the hidden world of refugees and human smugglers, and a sobering reflection of our times.

I'm delighted to be hosting the blog tour for Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi today. Many thanks to World Editions and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me and for sending me a copy of the novel.

Although I've read a lot about the refugee crisis (fiction and non-fiction)  it has mainly been about the people who are in the various camps around the world or those who have been granted asylum. Two Blankets, Three Sheets focuses on perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the process - the asylum centres where refugees can often spend many years waiting to be granted residency. At the beginning of the book, Rodaan Al Galidi explains that he is the writer, not the main character and the narrator is someone he's called Samir Karim. As he explains, this book is fiction for the reader who cannot believe it. But for anyone open to it, it is non-fiction.
Samir lands at Schiphol Airport in February 1998 with a forged Dutch passport; after waiting for the plane he arrived on to take off again (if immigration officials work out where an asylum seeker has arrived from, they can send them straight back) and destroying the evidence of his global trail to the Netherlands, he hands himself over to a policeman, informing him he is from Iraq. After his first two confusing hearings, he is sent to an asylum centre housing over 500 other refugees and awaits the decision as to whether he will be granted political or humanitarian asylum.
The title of the book refers to the two blankets, three sheets, towel, pillow, and a pillowcase assigned to every refugee, most of whom will spend years in a form of purgatory, waiting for the letter from immigration which they hope will give them a residency permit. Samir ends up waiting in the centre for nine years but although his description of his time there deals with some tough subjects - the gradual loss of hope and the dehumanising effect of such a life eventually leads to the suicide of some of his fellow residents - it is also an insightful and often witty exploration of what happens when 500 people from around the world are expected to live in close confinement with one another while also learning how to live within a completely different culture. His anecdotes about his housemates range from the ridiculous to the tragic as they all try to find ways to cope with the Dutch bureaucratic system which seems designed primarily to ensure arbitrary rules are adhered to rather than to assist refugees seeking a new life. It's obviously not an easy place to work and what is perhaps particularly striking is that it doesn't appear to just be the asylum seekers who lose themselves within the centre; the humanity of the workers is also eroded by the system.
There is a (I suspect) necessary sense of detachment to Two Blankets, Three Sheets with Samir's anger and despondency often rather hinted at rather than truly laid bare. However, there are the odd telling sentences which reveal the long-lasting trauma of being made to feel helpless and hopeless. Before reaching Europe he spent years in Southeast Asia and his memories of that time form arguably the most vivid passages in the novel, especially his rather bizarre experience working as an extra on a film about the Vietnamese War. His latter years in the centre are dealt with rapidly as he marks his time there through the birthdays of a young boy who was born on the day he was assigned his shared room in Orange section but although we aren't privy to as many of the stories from these final years, what is only too evident is how demoralising and indeed cruel a half-lived life is.
The years since Samir arrived in the Netherlands have seen an immense movement of people as war and terrorism has led to millions being displaced from their homes. He acknowledges that not everybody who passes through an asylum centres is a legitimate refugee but if, as a global society we are consigning people to years spent in what is effectively an open prison, where they are left to question whether they have been forgotten and to fear not only the authorities but also their own state of mind, then surely we must admit that something needs to change. Fiction that is also non-fiction -  Two Blankets, Three Sheets is a poignant, perceptive and important novel; I feel privileged to have read it.

Two Blankets, Three Sheets is published by World Editions and can be purchased from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Hive.

Don't miss the rest of blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

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. Two Blankets, Three Sheets, already a bestseller in the Netherlands, is his most successful novel to date.

About the Translator
Jonathan Reeder, a native of New York and longtime resident of Amsterdam, enjoys a dual career as a literary translator and performing musician.


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