In my contact list were forty-seven telephone numbers for people whose place I could probably crash at for a night or two. I had acted as an interpreter for many of them in tight, distressing, embarrassing, or amusing situations. I started dialing.
“Hey Murat, how’s things?”
“Hey Samir, long time no see.”
“You bet. How are you doing? Where are you now?”
“In Turkey, man. Calling is expensive, for both of us. I’ll be in touch once I’m back.” In the background I heard the familiar jingle of a tram bell.
“Have they got Dutch trams in Turkey, too, Murat?” I asked. The line went dead. I deleted Murat’s number and went to the next on the list.
“Hey Tahir, how you doing?”
“Samir! Long time no see!”
“Where do you live these days?”
“Me? In Turkey, man. Expensive to call. Samir, I’ll be in touch once I’m back! Ciao!”
I deleted Tahir’s number.
“Hi Rafid, it’s Samir. What’s up?”
“Samir! So long since we talked. How are things in the ASC?”
“I’m finally gonna leave it.”
“Oh, too bad, man, I’m away for a while.”
“Don’t tell me: Turkey.”
“How’d you know?”
“Say hi to Murat and Tahir.” One by one I deleted the phone numbers of my old buddies.
On my shrinking list was one name I couldn’t place: Calvin. Who was Calvin? I couldn’t remember if I’d met him in the ASC or somewhere else. How did his number get into my phone? Maybe it was left over from the previous owner, an Angolan guy who had sold me the phone when he left for Germany. I dialed the number.
“Hello, this is Samir.”
“Samir!” So he remembered me, at least.
“Who are you, and where do I know you from?”
“Och, man. We lived in the same camp for a month and a half. And when they chucked me out in the middle of the goddamn winter, you gave me your coat and seven euros. You waved at me from the window and shouted, ‘Don’t ever come back.’ Remember?” I remembered my coat, and many others I waved off, but not Calvin or the seven euros.
“Listen, my minutes are running out and so is the battery, but I need a place to stay. Just one or two nights.”
“Come out here, man!” he said, and gave me directions.
So I boarded a train with a delay of nine years, nine months, one week, three days, and fifteen minutes. Once I arrived I called him, and he gave me some more directions.
Two and a half hours and four phone calls later I got out at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. From a distance I saw Calvin cycling toward me, his left hand on the handlebars and his right hand holding another bike. He stopped, dropped the two bikes onto the shoulder, ran over, and gave me a hug.
“Did you steal the other bike?” I asked.
“No, man. In this town there are four times as many bikes as people. If you say hi to a Hollander, the first thing he asks is whether you need a bike.” He laughed a great big laugh and slapped me on the back. “Welcome to the real Holland,” he said, and started laughing even harder. While we fastened my things to the baggage carriers, he told me that he and I were the only foreigners the village had ever seen. “A Japanese tourist came here by mistake a few years ago, but he only lasted an hour. I think he’s still in therapy. Whatcha got in that garbage bag? A body?” “Old photo albums,” I said. “In a garbage bag?” “Yeah, so it’s clear to everyone I haven’t stolen them, but found them in the trash.”
My journey began long ago in that tiny village: a journey that I thought was about getting to know the Dutch people, but that I should now confess was really about getting to know myself.
The village looked nothing like the villages in the country where I was born. A stranger entering an Iraqi village is a real event for the residents. Something like the arrival of a Hollywood star in East Podunk. First you’ll see and hear the dogs. Some of the dogs will bark, others will run up and bite you. As you approach the houses you’ll hear the nonstop chatter. If you listen well, you’ll hear the cries of a newborn, the cries of whiny, slightly older children, the cries of even older, whiny and fighting children, and the shouts of children who are almost no longer children. This potpourri of children’s noises is then mixed with the bleating of goats, a squawking, quacking, meowing, lowing, and then some more bleating. Through all of this you’ll hear the sound of water. Water means life. All the village noises make you think of water—the children, the animals, the squeak of the pumps, and the bellyaching of the villagers.
And this is what will probably surprise you the most. Villagers in Iraq gripe constantly, about themselves, about one another, and about life. They’re all waiting for God to come up with a solution. If, for instance, there is a small canal where a few children drowned because two planks of the bridge were broken, then rather than repair it themselves, the villagers gripe that Iraq’s government is useless and doesn’t take care of them, and pray to God day and night to solve the problem. They expect Him to personally come down from heaven with a hammer and nails, a saw, and new planks to fix the bridge.
In an Iraqi village there are fruit trees and date palms, you see reeds everywhere, and it smells of clay. Most houses have loam walls and a roof thatched with palm leaves. A few of the houses—those families whose son is in the army— are made of stone. The roads are not paved, so drivers must take care to avoid all the potholes and ditches. Cars kick up dust clouds in the summertime and get mired in the mud after a rainstorm. As soon you see a paved road, you know it will lead from the home of a high-placed military man to the highway. A few old women sit along the route to the village with their grandchildren, selling whatever they have left over from their orchard and livestock. You never see young girls selling things, because the men make them either work in the fields, stay at home and make babies, or fetch water from the river. This is a village in Iraq.
You cannot compare a Dutch village to an Iraqi one. Whereas in Iraq the dogs lie in wait in order to bite you, in a Dutch village it’s the solitude that lurks. To me, the word village means “factory for fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and soldiers” (since village children in Iraq do not go to school, the boys enlist in the army at eighteen). In a Dutch village you see tractors and barns, fields of potatoes, carrots, and onions, but not a single Dutch person sweating out in the fields, chasing his neighbor’s cattle from his orchard, or struggling to coax more water out of the ground. It’s as though the village runs itself. I was surprised to discover that even the smallest village in the Netherlands has a supermarket, where to my even greater surprise you can buy all sorts of fruit and vegetables without seeing the trees they grow on, or those trees having the climate they need.
That first day in the village, cycling alongside Calvin from the bus stop to his house, the only person I saw outside was the mailman. Elderly faces watched us pass from behind large, spotless plate-glass windows. I waved to an older man who was watching us from his window, and Calvin hissed, “Don’t do that, man.”
“Why not? Did you two have an argument?”
“Of course not, but the Hollanders don’t like people seeing them sitting in their living rooms.”
“But the curtains are open.”
Calvin shook his head and chuckled. “Boy, have you got a lot to learn, Samir. I thought you’d caught on to the Dutch by now. Hollanders have windows so they can watch you, not so you can look at them. Those big windows are there to satisfy their curiosity, not yours.”
“Spoken like a true native,” I said.
“Man oh man, fortunately not,” Calvin laughed. “This town’s got enough psychological problems for the whole of Africa. Man, man.”
We cycled past windows, behind which people stood watching us. As though we were the only thing that ever happened outside. I peeked at the windows out of the corner of my eye, without turning to look.
“How can you stand living here, with all this grayness?”
“Listen, Samir, you’ve got more of a chance with girls in a Dutch village than you do in the city.”
“Get outta here,” I said.
Excerpted from The Leash and the Ball by Rodaan Al Galidi, published by World Editions. Copyright © 2020 by Rodaan Al Galidi. Translation copyright © 2022 by Jonathan Reeder. By arrangement with the publisher.