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Like Malik’s parents, the Spanish Lady and her husband had been refugees. Refugees with a small “r,” an “r” that tried to make itself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Their story wasn’t exactly grand either, and when urged to tell it, they looked positively embarrassed. They began to stutter so much that nobody ever made them finish the story. Beneath it lay a deep dark secret they didn’t want anyone to know. He remembered the words of the Spanish Lady: “We were all orphaned by the Civil War. We all had to fend for ourselves. There was no need to shout it from the rooftops.”
[private]This more or less fit in with what Malik’s parents had always told him: “People everywhere are sometimes forced to flee for their lives. We weren’t the only ones.” Years ago, long before the refugee question had become a burning issue with an even greater news value than floods and famines, Malik’s father had seen a group of refugees on the eight o’clock news and had pointed out, with brutal honesty, which ones he thought were going to make it. Apparently he had an eye for that kind of thing.
The Spanish Lady had amassed a fortune in her host country, just as Malik’s parents had. They’d made the most of their opportunities and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. No one had ever thought that Malik’s father would one day be so rich that he’d never again have to worry about money. This was the same man who’d been welcomed to Holland by a clergyman who’d thrust a pair of underpants into his hands and then assigned him to a hastily built barracks. “You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot,” his father always said, “and not get discouraged when times are tough. Remember, you can always get a bowl of soup from the Salvation Army.” It was his father’s mantra, and it sounded good, the way he said it. His father had saved the underpants. “They’re a sacred relic,” he said. “One whiff of those underpants and I’m reminded of my first few weeks in this country. The same feeling of despair comes over me. And that’s good, because it gives me energy.”
Malik’s parents had arrived here with only two plastic bags, which contained their entire belongings. Holland had thrown open its borders to people whose voices had been silenced in other parts of the world, to people who longed for freedom and came to this country or to similarly welcoming countries to lick their wounds. They wanted to live their lives in peaceful surroundings, in places such as Ommoord, Poggibonsi, Sint-Niklaas or Aarhus. Holland was the oasis Malik’s parents had been longing for.
“We made the right choice,” his father concluded soon after his arrival. “We’ll get along fine in this country.”
“The toilets are dirty,” his mother said.
“Dirty toilets, clean kitchens—isn’t that how the saying goes?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
His father had felt at home right from the start. Before long his parents moved into a rented apartment in a working-class neighborhood. His father had promptly paid a visit to City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce and the Red Cross: to City Hall to register as a new resident, to the Chamber of Commerce to request a registration number for his future business and to the Red Cross to get a list of the most frequently occurring accidents and viruses in the Netherlands. He came home and told his wife that she should never stand on a ladder, since ladder-related incidents accounted for 80% of all home accidents. He visited the local churches, tasted the soup at the Salvation Army (“because you never know when you might need it”) and took his wife in to taste it too (“this has got to be rock bottom”).
Melissa Ben had wanted to go to Switzerland because it had mountains, chocolate and neutrality. Switzerland was a country that didn’t belong to anything, much as she and her husband no longer belonged anywhere either. That was how she looked at things. She had a strictly dualistic view of the world. People were either rooted or uprooted, secure or adrift, starry-eyed or down-to-earth. To Melissa, there was nothing in between.
In the eyes of Roxander Ben, however, his adopted country could do no wrong. While Holland was admittedly infected with the revolutionary spirit of the times, it never seemed to progress beyond the flower-power stage. Soon after his arrival, the whole country suddenly seemed to go searching for its identity, only to find a ready set of hippie credos, hippie gurus and hippie manifestos. Not even this could shake his father’s faith. Holland in the 1970s was a land of peace and harmony, where opportunity knocked on every door and the soup was rich and creamy.
The difference between Malik’s mother and father was never more apparent than in the way they dealt with strangers. One evening his father came home with a woman he’d bumped into on the sidewalk. They’d struck up a conversation, and he’d decided to introduce her to his wife. The moment Melissa Ben caught sight of her husband, fumbling with his keys outside the door, she hid behind the drapes, terrified of the unexpected stranger who was about to enter her private domain: an apartment without decent drapes, without books, without memories, without anything you could point to and say, “Look, that’s ours. That’s who we are.” A home, in fact, without the slightest bit of hominess.
The last thing she wanted was to be confronted with the hussy in tight jeans who was standing on her threshold. A woman who was bound to think she was ridiculous in her strange caftan. A woman who would look down on her and start flirting openly with her husband because she knew she could get away with it. Besides, the apartment still reeked of the spicy dish she’d prepared for her husband’s supper. Melissa Ben hated to cook.
Roxander stepped inside and called her name, but she didn’t answer.
“My wife is shy,” he announced to the sophisticated creature at his side. It was a blatant lie, but lying was second nature to him. He promised over and over again to tell the truth, yet when push came to shove, he always lied. He liked to joke about it: “Truth brings the world closer to you. Lying brings you closer to the world.”
Don’t make things worse than they already are, she thought. Don’t drag my name through the mud in front of strangers! But he did make things worse. He loved making things worse. He invited the Dutch woman to sit down and told her that his wife would be back soon, without saying where she’d gone, but implying that she’d just slipped out for a moment.
“Unfortunately, all I can offer you to drink is tea,” he said.
“I’d love some tea!” the woman cooed.
Melissa—still behind the drapes—balled her fists. What a suck-up, she thought.
Roxander offered the woman some of Melissa’s homemade cookies. His guest seemed to feel completely at ease. She had a soft, inquisitive voice. She thought the tea was delicious, the cookies even more so.
“If that woman had been the least bit sensitive,” Melissa said to Malik years later, “she never would have sat down.” As it was, his mother had been made to feel ridiculous.
“There’s something I’d like to show you,” Malik’s father said to his guest. He trotted off and came back with a roll of toilet paper. “In my country,” he said, “we don’t have toilet paper. It’s such a wonderful invention, and yet it’s so wasteful! Incredible, isn’t it? Imagine inventing a fantastic product like this that costs next to nothing to produce, yet commands a price that verges on the hysterical. Just think of all the trees!”
The woman laughed. “So what did you wipe your heinie with?”
“Your ‘heinie’? What’s that?”
“Your rear end.”
He laughed. “With a sharp pebble or a sheet of newspaper. Preferably yesterday’s paper, but it depended on the news. A good-sized pebble is the best. A little poking and prodding never hurt anyone. ” The two of them laughed.
He’s definitely making things worse, Melissa thought. It’s getting worse by the minute. Now he’s dragged my country’s reputation through the mud, and all to please a woman.
The visitor told Roxander that she was impressed by the Regime of No Color—the regime that ruled the country from which he and Melissa had fled.
“There isn’t an ounce of truth in what you’ve been told,” Roxander said. “The Regime of No Color has destroyed my country. Look at me. What’s a strong, healthy man like me doing here? I didn’t leave my country because I hated it.”
“Maybe you left because you wanted to tell the story of your country.”
“Boy, have you got your head in the clouds! My country doesn’t have a story to tell. All it has is poverty and despair. Our TV broadcasts the same crap day after day.”
“You must be exaggerating.”
“Me, exaggerate? Who’s the one who’s exaggerating—the person who calls a spade a spade or the person who admires the emperor’s new clothes?”
“You’ve picked up our language pretty fast.”
Malik’s father realized that talking to this woman had been a mistake. “An animal doesn’t abandon its territory without reason. The territory itself must have changed in some way, wouldn’t you agree? For example, the animal no longer feels safe, or isn’t able to find enough to eat. Anyway, I can tell you why this animal,” he said, pointing to himself, “left its territory. I was chased out of it, because I was a spy who refused to give his prized possession to the wolves.”
“So this is where you’ve been.”
Those were the first words Roxander Ben uttered to his wife when he found her behind the drapes. Two hazel eyes, anxious but hostile, stared back at him. “I see you’ve been playing hide-and-seek,” he said. “We waited for you all evening.”
She looked at him. “You don’t have a clue, do you?” she said. She strode over to the table, snatched up the roll of toilet paper and waved it angrily in his face.
“You can put that back in the cupboard,” he said. “Show-and-tell is over. You missed all the fun. She was impressed, she had a good laugh, and she was confused. Just like I wanted her to be.”
“I didn’t miss a single word. You came waltzing in here with a strange woman. You made our country seem ridiculous by claiming we didn’t have toilet paper, and you made it sound as if we escaped from hell. What on earth will she think of us?”
“I’ve got a plan. But in order for us to carry it out, you’ll have to put on those high heels I bought you last week.”
“The red ones? What for?”
“We’re going to make a baby. Who else can we tell the story of our lives to except our own child?”
“You want us to do it now . . . this instant?”
“No, when the clock strikes hickory, dickory, dock. I’m going to take a shower, and after I’ve dried myself off, we can get started. It’ll be this century’s greatest project. It’ll be the best baby ever. We’ll show the regime that we haven’t been beat!”
If Roxander Ben hadn’t added that last sentence, in which he turned the birth of their child into an act of resistance against the regime, Melissa Ben would no doubt have slapped him or cursed him or even bitten off his ear. But she was prepared to do anything to defy the regime. So she put on her red high heels.
Melissa missed her homeland too much to settle easily into a new country. She had specialized in the geology and morphology of mountains. Her country was located in the middle of a high mountain range, and she’d written her master’s thesis on the transitional zone between mid-sized and high mountains. Holland didn’t have a single mountain, but that didn’t stop her from thinking up research projects that she’d give her eyeteeth to implement. Dutch geologists invariably ended up working for the oil industry, and one of the oil companies did in fact have an opening for a geologist. They were anxious to hire her, because they were looking for someone to do field work in the country ruled by the Regime of No Color. They promised to give her a Dutch passport so she could go in and out of the country without getting into trouble with the authorities. The oil companies worked hand in glove with the regime. Melissa rejected the offer. The very thought of it made her blood boil.
Roxander begged her to reconsider. “Once the oil starts to flow, we’ll be swimming in the stuff. In money, I mean.”
“I don’t want to be swimming in money, not at my country’s expense.”
“Oil is oil,” he said. “Nobody asks where the gasoline comes from when they fill their tank. We can use that money to send our child to a good school, to put decent clothes on its back. Can’t you set aside your principles for once? We’re poor. We can’t afford to have principles.”
“You’re such a bastard,” she said. “You’re asking me to sacrifice everything I ever stood for.”
“I may be a bastard, but at least I’m an honest one,” he said. “I’m not going to sugar-coat this for you. The next few years are going to be tough. If you don’t take that job, someone else will. I don’t intend to be made a laughing stock forever. The only thing you need to sacrifice is your inability to face reality.”
“You smooth-talking bastard! There’s nothing left of the ideals you used to spout so often. Peace. Truth. Justice. They don’t mean a thing to you anymore.”
Roxander grabbed his wife by the throat. “I don’t ever want to hear those words again,” he said. “I’ve had it up to here with words like that. Those words have been our downfall. Words are indestructible. They never change. People do. Our entire country went chasing after a few simple words, and look what it got us: corruption, manipulation, mutual distrust and a pack of lies.”
For weeks Melissa was besieged with phone calls from the oil company. “The answer is no,” she said. And again: “The answer is no!” They raised the salary. “The answer is no.” They threw in bonuses, added more vacation days, upped her chances of promotion. “The answer is no.” Roxander could have strangled her. Instead he watched as Melissa destroyed their one chance to live a life of relative ease.
“The answer is no!”[/private]
Written by Abdelkader Benali and translated by Susan Massotty.
Born in Morocco in 1975, Abdelkader Benali has lived in the Netherlands since 1979. He has written two successful plays and his reportage from Lebanon has been serialised in The Drawbridge. He has published three novellas, and the book Marathon Runner, of which De Volkskrant said: "Benali can run really well and write incredibly beautifully. This slender book is so full of exciting ideas and sharp observations, existential doubt and great triumph that Benali's words will stay with both runner and non-runner for a long time."
Susan Massotty is a literary translator whose translations include novels by Cees Nooteboom and Margriet De Moor, as well as The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Massotty won the 2007 Vondel Prize for translation from the Dutch or Flemish for My Father's Notebook by Kader Abdolah.