Rodaan Al Galidi on Historical Taboos

What's your national taboo?

In the Netherlands, people believe more in their system than the words of others. Between 19 February 1998 and the end of 2007, I underwent an asylum procedure. Nine years. As long as WWI and WWII combined. It’s strange that no one believes that I’ve been through a nine year asylum procedure. When I tell people they cannot believe that their system has something like that on their conscience. So they think I am not telling the truth. I asked the Immigration and Naturalisation Service for proof that I spent all those years in a procedure, but their reaction was to get angry. You cannot ask for such things yourself. So I received no proof from the system that I was a victim of their system. And without this proof, people do not believe me. It’s as if the system was there first and then the people, and not the other way around. One time I spoke with a diplomat at the Dutch embassy in another country. I had just won the European Union Prize for Literature. I told him about my nine years in asylum centres. But that’s absolutely impossible, he said. The truth can only be told and believed through the mouth of the system.

Once in the asylum centre De Harne in Harlingen, a man became a father. The new-born was just a few days old when the man was sent back to Germany because they discovered he had asked for asylum there as well. His wife and daughter had to stay. He had to leave his baby behind. We asked for help from people who lived near the asylum centre but they did not believe that this was possible. We said they could see the baby for themselves but they did not want that. I did not understand this response, unfortunately. Perhaps I never will.

How can this taboo be ovecome?

I think to get beyond all this, there must be more space given to other media – non-system media. The system’s victims who think they are victims must have a place where they can tell their story. In 1999, an Iraqi refugee in an asylum centre tried to commit suicide after waiting for a long time in his room. Police arrested him and put him in a cell because this was not allowed. We called the local television and radio stations to go see him because we believed he would be much better off in a psychiatric hospital. But they weren’t allowed in with their cameras and microphones.

What would change?

What would happen is as follows: the human side of the system will get the chance to grow. When I was living in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the system was hard. You always had to be careful. Reading books was very dangerous since if you read there was the possibility you would think – and thereby you would perhaps think about being against the system. To protect myself I read books in secret and changed the covers of any banned books. For example, a book by Jean-Paul Sartre would get the cover from a book about Saddam Hussein’s life. It was all very clear: the system could bite – and sometimes even eat you up.

Here there is a democratic system. This system protects you until you make a mistake. Then they punish you. The idea behind punishment is to protect you and others from your mistake. If you are drunk and drive a car, you will be punished because you are not protecting yourself or others. This is all well and good. That’s why you blow into a gadget so the police can tell if you drank or not. The police don’t believe your words but only believe this gadget. Therefore, you only have to fear the police and the police only have to not believe you. That’s how the system works. It doesn’t have a human side – a gadget has to stand in between. This is all clear and justifiable.

But how about situations when there are no gadgets in between? During the nine years I spent in asylum centres, I spoke Dutch, English and Arabic. Once when an Iraqi was arrested for attempting suicide, the police politely asked if there was anyone who could translate since the man could only speak Arabic. I volunteered and was taken in a police car from the asylum centre AZC De Harne in Harlingen to the police station in Leeuwarden where he was imprisoned. There he was in a waiting room with his arms tied back. I sat down beside him, and the policeman who had brought me returned to his station in Harlingen. I waited not knowing for who I would translate or when. Much later, two agents walked in and one pointed at me and said, ‘Why is that one not in cuffs’? I wanted to say that I was only here to translate but the agent put his finger to his lips and shhh-ed me.  I tried again to make clear why I was there, but he just shhh’ed harder and threatened me with a finger in my face. My hands were tied back with a plastic thing. I did not dare, and nor was I allowed, to open my mouth. It was evening by now. We were both taken to a cell and that’s where I stayed the night.

The next day, I said I was a translator and wished to make an official complaint about my night in jail and the inhumane way I was treated. The man behind the counter said, ‘Don’t exaggerate. You will get a train ticket from us to go back to Harlingen.’ When I said that I did not want this, he said I would be returned to the cell. So an hour later I was on the train. Even the social division of the asylum centre did not believe my story.

Imagine if there was a human side to the system, then I would have been allowed to say that I was there voluntarily and did not deserve to spend a night in a cell. At the very least, they would have listened.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned? 

The biggest learning moment for Europe was the Second World War. This war was the result of the largest possible changes in Europe. Before, humans were the centre of the universe and not of their lives. The economy began destroying the humanity of humans and turning them into numbers. The crowd became a herd. A herd of millions. Once that happened, the Europeans were ready for any kind of herder. Whether such a herder was communist, capitalist, socialist or nationalist did not matter. Whoever had the herd could then decide who would be slaughtered and who would be allowed to graze. This was followed by the craziest years in the history of humanity. There had never been a worse fire and with so many victims: 60 million. The Europeans are not stupid – or honest – enough to say it was ‘their’ war. No, they called it the Second ‘World’ War. Meanwhile my grandparents knew nothing of this war since they had no radio or TV. They were absolutely no part of this war and yet it was also called their war. Because Europeans are the world.

The most important thing that the Europeans learned from this was that no opportunities should be given for a man to grow into an ‘idol’. They have learned this well. Since the Second World War, we have not seen a Mussolini or a Hitler. And definitely no Stalin. That’s the lesson that Europe has learned best. Because in the last years, there were many men who would have grown into many Hitlers and very many Mussolinis if the same ground was as fertile as it was between 1936 and 1939.