By Harry van Versendaal
Kader Abdolah had never heard, nor read, let alone spoken, Dutch until he was 33. Twenty-four years later, he has published 17 books in this “beautiful language,” as he likes to say.
Born Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani in Arik, Iran, from early on he was driven by that rare — and at the same time tormenting — sense of destiny.
“I had a dream. I wanted to be a big, well-known Persian writer. Like my great-great grandfather. And I wanted to be a president, a beloved president,” he says.
From the ranks of a left-wing underground group, Abdolah, a physics graduate from the University of Tehran, opposed both the Shah and later Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime. He began writing under the pseudonym Kader Abdolah, a combination of the names of two murdered Kurdish friends.
A tall bespectacled man with a shock of black hair and a thick white mustache, Abdolah cuts a rather eccentric figure. He speaks in clipped, emphatic sentences with a heavy Persian accent, describing how in 1985 he was forced to leave Iran and escape into Turkey.
“I did not want to leave my homeland. I did not want to leave my language. It just happened,” he says.
Unable to afford an illegal passage into the United States, three years later he ended up in Holland as a political refugee. When he first got to the Netherlands it was, of course, raining. “What could a young Persian man do in Amsterdam? I did what every tourist does: I went to the Red Light District,” he says. He would soon come across a Persian carpet shop. After greeting a fellow Iranian behind the counter in his native tongue, he went on to disclose his ambition to become a big Persian writer.
He still recalls the shop owner’s somewhat sarcastic response: “Your dream is very big, the Netherlands is very small.”
Abdolah moved to a small village not far from the German border and tried to do some writing in Persian. “But, suddenly, I was nobody. I was a refuge. I was not able to explain myself.”
He decided to leave Europe. He paid money for a fake passport in a bid to sneak into America. But he was arrested at Schiphol Airport. A few months later, he made a fresh attempt, with a new passport. Again he failed. On his third attempt, he finally managed to board a plane to New York. “When I got there, the man behind the security desk looked into my eyes and then at my passport. He looked into my eyes again and then back at my passport. I was once again arrested, and sent back to the Netherlands.”
“It was then that I remembered an old Persian saying: ‘If you fail at something for the third time, use a different language.’ And that is what I did,” he says.
Abdolah’s early attempts to write in Dutch were a failure. His writings were full of mistakes. But he did not give up. With the help of a Dutch language teacher, he gradually improved until he mastered the new tool — often incorporating his own literary pecularities.
His first pieces appeared in local newspapers and then he made his author debut with the 1993 collection of short stories “De adelaars” (Eagles). In 2006, he published “Het huis van de moskee” (The House of the Mosque), the story of a family living in a provincial Iranian city over the course of three decades. The book started flying off the shelves, selling more than 300,000 copies in Holland. It has since been voted the second-greatest Dutch novel of all time and been translated into 27 languages.
Abdolah may not have become president — at least not yet — but he has certainly become a big writer in his newfound country. And in a sign of his receptiveness to Dutch habits, he went on to produce a more Euro-friendly translation of the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, which earned him contempt from more traditional Muslims.
“You need to reach deep into the soul of a society and culture before you can appeal to its audience,” he says. “Writing in Dutch is good for me, and it is good for the Dutch,” he adds, explaining how his work has enabled him to show the natives their own beauty, as well as how to better appreciate it. That beauty, thanks to immigrants like himself, is of an ever-changing, more colorful kind.
As Dutch society changes, the language is changing too. “The Dutch language has always been beautiful. But I made it even more beautiful than it was.”
The text is based on a discussion at the European Parliament Office in Athens, organized by the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the Dutch Embassy in Athens. Kader Abdolah’s book “De boodschapper” (The Messenger) has just been made available in Greek from Kastaniotis publishers.