The Leash and the Ball

Rodaan Al Galidi left Iraq for the Netherlands in 1998 when he was in his twenties. He fictionalised his experience in Two Blankets, Three Sheets which tells the story of Samir and the nine years he spends in a Dutch asylum centre. Now, in The Leash and the Ball (the title, as with the previous volume – two blankets and three sheets are what he is given when he arrives at the centre – has a meaning that becomes clear during reading) Samir’s journey continues. Both volumes have been translated by Jonathan Reeder, and this second novel highlights the difficulties of life outside the centre. It is written with humour and bemusement, and with an eye for the cultural differences that continue to puzzle the protagonist.

Samir’s plan when he is finally released from the asylum centre is to go to the south of Spain, but he soon discovers that, before that, he must pass his citizenship exam to gain Dutch nationality:

“It was like going to the doctor for a sniffle and finding out I had some awful disease.”

As he will throughout the novel, he has to rely on the kindness of others, particularly other refugees. He begins by calling everyone whose number he has – only for them all, with a mysterious unanimity, to claim they are in Turkey – until he gets to a name he no longer recognises – Calvin – and he finally receives the offer of a place to stay. Calvin stays in a small village with the Van der Weerde family – even as he arrives it is obvious Samir still has a lot to learn as he waves at an old man watching them through his window. When Calvin tells him not to, he wonders whether they have had a falling out, but, as Calvin tells him:

“Of course not, but the Hollanders don’t like people seeing them sitting in their living rooms.”

The novel is full of such observations, allowing the European reader to see themselves (in the words of Robert Burns) as others see us. Some are simply amusing, but others might make us think more deeply, for example when Danielle Van der Weerde comes to Samir to ask if he needs anything, her expression reminds him of the staff in the centre:

“A Dutch’s person’s face at their workplace is not necessarily their own face, but their uniform.”

It is when he meets the daughter, Leda, that he decides to stay:

“She was the anchor that kept me fixed to the village seabed.”

Samir and Leda grow close – partly through her dog, Diesel, who befriends Samir – as he survives by doing odd jobs around the village. Samir falls in love with Leda but, though clearly fond of him, she is reluctant to commit, a reluctance that is not simply down to their different backgrounds:

“She’s unbound by the world around her, but imprisoned within herself, I thought.”

This is partly due to her own background – for example, Samir discovers she has a different father to her siblings, a one-night stand that resulted in pregnancy. She has also suffered as a result of a previous relationship. Despite this, Galidi demonstrates that affection came overcome – at least until another woman in the village interferes.

The novel, like Samir, does not settle in the village. For a while he lives in a student flat, surprised by both their untidiness and drunkenness:

“Why did they bring the prettiest girls home with them only to puke together?”

At the same time, he works rounding up chickens in a factory farm – exactly the kind of unpleasant, low-paid job we might associate with immigrants:

“The shed was hell, the feathers were fire, and the chickens were the sinners and the pain.”

He is told to collect five in each hand before shoving them into a crate, a task that at first seems impossible. When he gets back to his room he is “stinking and covered in feathers.” Later he lives in a flat which was assigned years ago to a refugee who has since left the country. Now the flat is used by any immigrants who need a place to stay under the pretence its legal occupant is still there:

“Sometimes I really wanted to open the curtains, but this wasn’t possible. What would the neighbour’s think if they saw all these men in Zakaiya’s house?”

The Leash and the Ball (its title comes from the habit Samir develops of carrying these items around with him to make it seem like he has a dog and so win instant acceptance from the Dutch) is best seen as a picaresque novel. With its various settings and changing cast of characters, the focus is very much on Samir’s adventures and misadventures. Despite what might be seen as its serious subject matter, his story is told in a humorous, entertaining manner, without ever feeling glib or satirical. Samir as a narrator is both innocent and perceptive, and readers will learn as much about themselves as they do about him.

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3 Responses to “The Leash and the Ball”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    This sounds excellent, but disturbing. I was surprised to see that Samir is kept as a detainee for 9 years, I had thought that Australians were the only ones who kept refugees locked up for such long periods of time.
    Cruelty, it seems, is more widespread than I’d thought.

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