Freedom Can Be a Nightmare: An Interview with Kader Abdolah

This interview was originally published August 12, 1995, in NRC Handelsblad.

A unique phenomenon in Dutch literature: Kader Abdolah, a political refugee from Iran who writes little gems of stories—in Dutch. It took him only five years to master the language. How did he do it? And what keeps him going? Kader Abdolah talks about his "terrible youth" in Iran, the struggle against the Shah and Khomeini, and about the exile's dilemma. "The Dutch language is overflowing the banks of my mother tongue."

"I'm an exile, and an exile always needs a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know whether I can make my dreams come true, but I want to reach the Dutch literary and linguistic top. I say that quite consciously: to keep that light burning in the future. An exile always runs the risk of falling, and I don't want to fall. I want to stay on my feet."

The eyes, the voice, the diction: everything about Kader Abdolah radiates willpower. Imagine an energetic "oomph" behind every word, an exclamation mark at the end of most sentences, and you'll have an inkling of the way he speaks. He struggles in utmost concentration with words he wasn't born with, words which therefore continually threaten to escape him, should his attention lag.

He's on a winning streak. In five years, he not only learned to speak excellent Dutch, but he also proved capable of writing lovely, evocative prose. Both his loosely autobiographical collections of short stories, De adelaars (The Eagles, 1993) and De meisjes en de partizanen (The Girls and the Partisans, 1995) received a warm reception from the critics; the latter was longlisted for the AKO Literature Prize.

Very few writers (Nabokov, Conrad) have ever succeeded in writing in anything other than their native language. "I was terribly afraid at first," Abdolah tells us in the café in Zwolle where we meet. "When I started writing my stories in Dutch, snakes entered my bed. I could reach out and touch them, like that. They came because suddenly, as a writer, I had become nothing, because all those strange Dutch words were threatening my life as a writer. My vocabularroduce literature. I was putting my position as a writer on the line.

"To escape that fear, I started translating my stories into Persian, as soon as I'd written them, and sending them to Persian publications abroad. But by the time I'd written the last two stories in De adelaars, I'd stopped doing that, and I didn't do it all with my second book. My memory was creating more and more space for Dutch all the time. When the second book was published, a snake came again, for the last time. In my dream I seized him between two fingers and squeezed, squeezed, squeezed until he died and I tossed him on the ground, whap, like that. I woke with a start, the sweat was running down my face, but it was time to celebrate. The snake was dead!"

He must have pounced on the Dutch language as soon as he arrived, seven years ago. "No, you're right, it's not normal," he nods. "After I'd been here for two years, I went to a psychiatrist. 'I want to write Dutch literature,' I told him, 'please examine me to see if I'm crazy.' All the man said was: 'I'm looking forward to your first book.'

Well, you succeeded.

"But it's only the beginning. It takes such tremendous discipline. I've resolved to write exclusively in Dutch for the next fifteen or twenty years. Nothing but my diaries can be in Persian. Maybe a time will come when I can't write in Dutch anymore. Then I'll just have to go back to Persian."

Why would that ever happen?

"An exile's life is unstable. Ruled by fear, especially when you're so deeply involved with a language. Your brains are under enormous pressure all the time. I want to make something stable out of my unstable life. To do that, I needed a hard and serious task. That's why I chase down those incredibly difficult Dutch words."

But why the fear?

"I'm afraid that I'm going to die, that my third book, the one I'm working on now, will only be half-finished. So I write day and night. When I come home from work—I work at the National Archives in Zwolle—I start in right after dinner. A half-hour nap, half an hour with the children, then I grab my bike, cycle along the dike for an hour, and start writing somewhere. I write in the library as well, and in the train. But I never write at home. I only revise at home. Why don't I write at home? Because a sort of fear overcame me in my little room, a feeling of desolation. I thought: the world is moving on, I'm falling behind. I had to get out the door."

What amazes me most is that you're able to write so evocatively in Dutch.

"I don't just sit down and write whatever comes to mind. My second book actually consists of ten different experiments. Each story has a personality of its own, each one is written in a different way. I thought: there are enough writers in Holland, I have to do something different, write something new. I start every day with the Persian classics, and old Dutch poetry from Komrij's anthology. That's how I learn the magic of language, the magic of the original Dutch as well. It's often a very sparing language—not a single word is wasted.

"From the time I was a child, my brains taught me the economy of expression. I had to learn that. My father was deaf-mute, I was his helper. I had to be able to boil a thirty-page story down to a few gestures."

He talks about how he came to grips with Dutch. At first there were the usual language courses. "I consciously tried to learn all those words and sentences, because I knew they were the building blocks for my future literary home. I read Annie M.G. Schmidt's children's books, Carmiggelt's columns, Kopland's poetry. After a while I could read Dutch quite well, but I still couldn't speak it. My wife, who came to Holland in 1988, at the same time I did, was much further. So I had to get a job: in a museum or a company, whatever, and learn everyday Dutch as well."

But writing is different from reading or speaking. It is—certainly for him, he realizes—a never-ending struggle.

"While I was writing my first book, I asked all kinds of people for advice. I showed them words and sentences. I still do that, but not as often. My oldest daughter is twelve, her Dutch is excellent. She often spends fifteen minutes with me in the evening, I ask her questions about the language, and she gives me perfect answers. It's a wonderful thing, learning."

Why do you do it? You could have gotten by with other people's translations of your work into Dutch, couldn't you?

"An exile lives on the fringe. You always remain an outsider, you don't feel at home anywhere. Iran is a fantastic country, it's my fatherland, my motherland, my murdered brother is buried there, my sister has been in prison there. It's the land of my past, but I can't get to it anymore. I don't feel like an Iranian writer anymore, I don't even feel like an Iranian. But the writer wants to assume a central position, even though he's an outsider. He needs to be the center of attention. So I stay productive—in Dutch.

"Besides, an exile always has a great longing for home, especially for his parental home. That homesickness never goes away. In my stories, I bring my home back here."

How does your wife feel about living with a man possessed?

"She always wanted a normal husband, she spent years struggling to lead a normal life, but she didn't succeed. She used to hate it that I was always off in a world of my own. Now she feels it's her destiny. She's accepted it, and tries not to struggle against it. She probably figures there's no other way.

"But she has a great deal of freedom. Unlike me, she comes from a free family, and she had a Western education."

His great-great-grandfather was not only premier of Persia around 1870, but also a famous poet. He patiently writes his name for me in full: Mirza Abolghasem Ghaemnagham Farahani. "He was murdered. By the Shah's men."

His ancestor's weight laid heavy on his conscience—and perhaps it still does.

"It was my family's dream to one day produce another famous writer. Thanks to him, my family once enjoyed a high status. After his murder, we went downhill, every generation fell a little lower. My father was a carpet-weaver in Arak, our hometown, a very religious place. Everyone in my family wanted to be a writer. I did too, but my great-great-grandfather's shadow was too heavy for my shoulders. That's why, later, I chose the pen name Kader Abdolah, the name of a comrade who was killed in the resistance. I had to, for my own safety as well.

"I never felt free, not even as a child. I always thought I had to prove myself, especially since my father was handicapped—mentally as well. Even as a boy of ten, I had to assume my father's role. I never had a real childhood, I was always a man, the man of a family with four daughters and, later on, a little brother as well. Whenever we would go to visit somewhere, I had to keep an eye on my father.

"And then, of course, there was my family's dream. When I was twelve, my great-great-grandfather appeared in my sleep one night. He said: 'Be calm, you're the one, you'll be the one . . . ' From that day on I started keeping a journal. For ten years, sometimes as much as thirty pages a day."

He points to his throat. "I always had the feeling there was a stone in my throat, I wanted to scream all the time, I don't know why. I wrote about everything, about the things that hurt me, about the crying going on behind my eyes."

It doesn't sound like a very happy childhood.

"It was a terrible childhood. I had problems with the religion, with Hell, with the Day of Judgment. Then that terrible puberty. I dreamed about women, and there was no one who said: 'Listen, boy, you're becoming a man.' We didn't really talk at home. I couldn't talk to my own father, my mother and my sisters treated me like the father. I didn't have any friends, in fact, later on I didn't either.

"My spiritual father was my uncle, who lived with us. He was the one who established the norms and values. He talked to me, but never about feelings-only about actions and tangible things. Love was a forbidden subject. I was in love, but I felt that as a betrayal of my family's norms and values. There was a huge discrepancy between my desire and the way I was raised. I'd learned a great deal from the Koran, but much of what I was looking for was in conflict with that. I wanted to go into cafés, sit down next to women . . . It was during the Shah's time, all the cafés were still open. But in my family, those kinds of things weren't done."

Was it such a strict Muslim family?

"When you people use the word 'strict,' you think right away of those fanatical Muslims in Lebanon. But it wasn't like that. There were Muslim families who appeared much stricter, but who were actually much more permissive: families with a double ethic. In my home, everything was serious, we were a family with fixed norms and values. And I was a serious man with serious problems."

Who is the father figure in your novels? Your real father, or your uncle?

"I sometimes have trouble telling them apart in my own stories. My real father died a year ago. My uncle is still alive, he's ninety-two. If you read my stories and you feel tears coming to your eyes, it's about my real father. When the reader feels something powerful, then it's my uncle. I owe him a lot. If it weren't for my uncle, I wouldn't be writing stories in Dutch. He helped me learn how to read the Persian classics, like The History of Behagi. He would often call out: 'Listen to this, boy, feel the magic in these lines.' He must have recognized my talent. He called to me, not to his own sons."

How long did you remain a practicing Muslim?

I went to the mosque with my uncle every day until I was twelve. When I started keeping a journal, I started doubting. I fell in love with a girl from our street when I was fifteen. I figured: I'm going to put God to the test. I wrote in my journal: 'God, I'm in love with that girl, I want to see her down on the corner—if she's there, you exist.' She wasn't there, and God vanished as far as I was concerned."

When Abdolah went to Tehran in 1972 to study physics ("a fantastic practice for a writer"), he soon became involved in the student resistance to the Shah's dictatorial regime.

"At home, we'd always been against him, but outside the house you never talked about it. As a student, I became a pen-and-ink crusader. The Shah's secret police were powerful, but at that time the left-wing student movement was also growing and becoming stronger. It was risky, of course, but in Persian tradition it's an honor to die for the people. What's more, I didn't want to be a second-class writer. I wanted to experience everything, so I could write about it later on. If you want to be a great person, you have to perform great deeds as well.

"Two-thirds of the members of my party were murdered during the Shah's regime. One year before he was overthrown—in 1979—he began releasing prisoners. We could build up the party again. I joined the editorial board of the party's underground paper.

"We opposed Khomeini too, later on, but we couldn't do anything against him. The people would have devoured us if we had put up a fight. We didn't trust Khomeini, we knew his views on the revolution and women. While Khomeini was waging war against Iraq, he also destroyed all the opposition parties. A small group from my party was able to escape, the rest were arrested, tortured and killed."

Was the persecution under Khomeini different from that under the Shah?

"It was harder for us, and more terrible. The Shah was really an outsider, he needed his secret police. But Khomeini and his people were old Muslim rebels, they knew the people well, knew how a secret party worked. Khomeini was the people. He didn't need any secret police."

During those years, Abdolah illegally published two books, journalistic novels. One of them was titled What Do Kurds Have to Say?

"At a certain point I no longer dared to keep a copy of it. I destroyed the manuscript too. After a reading in Antwerp last month, an Iranian came up to me. It turned out he'd saved two copies of my first book. It was fantastic. Like having a lost son come home."

In 1985, Abdolah was ordered to leave the country. By his party? "It wasn't a personal decision," he says. "It was an agreement. It's too early at this point to say anything about it. I would be endangering my family and others if I did."

But don't your books endanger them?

"My uncle called me once and asked what kind of work I was doing here. I told him: I write stories. He asked me what kind of stories. Stories to bring back our dead, I told him. He understood, and said: I know you. I asked him if that would create problems for them. No, he said, keep at it, you don't have to hold back for our sakes, we have nothing more to lose.

"I want to take revenge on the dictatorship, in a beautiful, litthe dictatorship-a blow you people deliver. I want to write the history of the people I lived among for the first thirty-four years of my life. I want to be the teller of the truth."

Has a lot changed since Khomeini died in 1989?

"Nothing really. There's no criticism, no real political opposition. But the regime is no longer able to keep a finger in every pie, there's too much poverty for that. Because the oil is so cheap. You people buy cheap oil. The opposition tries to keep the coals of resistance glowing, for there will come a day . . . but that day could take half a century to arrive. This regime can't be overthrown with a revolution, it will have to undergo a metamorphosis."

So what does that mean for Salman Rushdie?

"Two things. Rushdie is a sort of exile. Every exile has, in a figurative sense, taken the keys to his old house with him. When he comes back, the keys no longer fit the lock. What I mean to say is this: even if the fatwa is lifted, Rushdie will discover that he has undergone a complete change of spirit. And furthermore the fatwa is God's word, as spoken by Khomeini. Even if another regime decides to lift it, it will always remain God's word for many of the devout. So the fatwa can never really be lifted. For Rushdie, that fear will always be there. He'll have to accept it."

A political refugee in Holland. One who ended up here more or less by accident, because a Dutch delegation to the United Nations in Ankara—where he had fled—suddenly had room for him.

"At first I thought I'd walked into a trap. I saw nothing but those cloudy skies above me. How could I write stories in this damp country? I love the Dutch language now. And when you come to love a language, you start loving the people too. These days the Ijssel River flows through my mind, I have thousands of cows in my head, I see green landscapes. Holland isn't just another country to me, I've made a world out of Holland, Abdolah's world, and I love it.

"After a difficult entrance examination, I studied literature at the University of Utrecht. I did that for one year, studying seventeen hours a day. It was a major turning point in my life. We did prose analysis. I had never analyzed literature so deeply before. It was decisive for my new writing career."

Imagine that, all of a sudden, you were free to go back to Iran-what then?

The question visibly depresses him. Loudly, almost despairingly, he says: "It would be fantastic and, at the same time, it would be a nightmare. All the work I've done to acquire the Dutch language and then, suddenly, it's no longer necessary . . . terrible. I just have to work hard, so I don't think about things like that.

I've fought for freedom. But for me, freedom can be a nightmare. The Dutch language in my mind is overflowing the banks of my mother tongue. Sometimes I cry out: help, bring in the sandbags, the dike of my mother tongue is about to burst! But I'm the attacker. That's the tragedy of a writer on the run. I'm a whale who can swim in Dutch waters."

Would your children go back with you?

"My children are Dutch, they wouldn't go back. We feel like they're no longer ours, they've assumed Dutch colors. They don't understand our parents' culture. Their mother tongue is a foreign language, even though we speak Persian at home. I try to get them interested in Iran, but it's hard. Terrible things happen sometimes. My mother-in-law came to visit from Iran. She saw our youngest child for the first time. He didn't accept her, he called her 'aunt'. After a lot of fuss, he started calling her 'auntie-grandma'. When you're a child, what good is a grandmother who can't even buy you an ice cream cone, who's dependent on you for everything?

"Those things are impossible to accept. Those who flee have to pay a very high price."

You once wrote: One day, I think someone will come, someone who'll help me get over my intense longing for home."

"I'm always waiting for someone . . . maybe every exile feels that way. Sitting on the couch at home, I'm always waiting, looking out the window. I know that, one day, someone will come. Maybe that hope is what keeps you going."