Posts Tagged 'language'

Big dreamer in a small country

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.

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Requiem for a nation?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Bart De Wever is not a big fan of Belgium. In fact, he would eventually like to see the nation “evaporate.” The problem is that his party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has just won an emphatic victory in the country’s general election. Is Belgium set to become the stuff of history books?

“Not yet,” says Pierre Vercauteren, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Mons. Although De Wever’s separatist party made a strong showing winning the largest number of seats in the 150-seat lower Belgian federal house, he says, that does not mean that there is an equal number of voters out there who want a divorce.

“These voters simply wanted to express a strong disappointment with the Flemish members of the outgoing coalition about the lack of success in the reform of the state which they promised in 2007,” Vercauteren said, describing the ballot outcome as “clear in its form, ambiguous in its meaning and complicated in its consequences.”

De Wever’s party won nearly 30 percent of the Flemish vote on a campaign to gradually disconnect Flanders from the rest of the country and has now entered what is expected to be protracted negotiations with the French-speaking Socialists (PS) of Elio Di Rupo, which came second nation-wide with 36 percent of the Walloon vote on the promise of increased public spending.

De Wever has said the Flemish “must be masters of their own fate” but following his victory he has watered down his separatist message. “We do not want a revolution,” Wever, a 39-year old historian, said. “We do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight. But we do believe in gradual evolution.” In an apparent bid to appease the francophone public, he suggested that he would make way for Di Rupo to be prime minister and rather pursue a deal to reform the federal state and finances – i.e. to devolve key powers to the regions. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourselves,” the election winner told Wallonia voters after his victory.

“De Wever said he will not let Belgium explode but still remains deeply convinced that the end of Belgium is the future,” Vercauteren says. That would mean a slow death – but death nevertheless. For the time being, Flanders and Wallonia enjoy self-rule over employment, environment, agriculture, culture and sports but the former want to expand autonomy over health, justice and social security – a non-starter for their “dependent” cohabitants.

Since its creation in 1830, Belgium, the administrative center of the European Union, has seen little of the unity preached by the eurocrats in Brussels. Friction has been the leitmotif in the relationship between the nation’s two communities, the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the more needy French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

The linguistic divide is evident everywhere: from political parties and boy scouts to road signs and license plates, while Brussels resembles a bilingual island at the heart of the nation. The linguistic apartheid between the 6.5 million Dutch speakers and the 4 million French speakers comes with a lot of luggage. Once a rural population looked down upon by their francophone kin, the Flemish are fed up with subsidizing their slacker neighbors. Wallonia has twice the jobless rate and 25 percent lower per-capita income. The discrepancy in the number of highway speed traps (a source of state revenue) is seen as emblematic of the divide: Flemish authorities have installed over 1,500 while the Walloon government just over 160.

A recent study by the RTL broadcasting company found 32 percent of the Flemish population want outright independence, 17 percent a confederation and 25 percent greater self-rule within Belgium.

If the past is any guide, negotiations between the different parties will be long and complicated. It took nine months for outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme to form his short-lived five-party coalition government in 2007, which collapsed over voting rights in Brussels’ suburbs.

Analysts fear that lingering uncertainty will prevent Belgium from curbing its huge debt making it, as the Financial Times put it, “the Greece of the north.” To make things more complicated, Belgium is set to take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July. Bart Maddens, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Leuven, says it should be possible to reach an agreement by September but even so, he adds, a prolonged crisis would have little consequences for the EU presidency. “There is a functioning government and prime minister, and the EU presidency is a matter which is largely dealt with on an administrative level,” he says.

Vercauteren is also not too concerned about the fallout, as the objective of EU integration has never been questioned in any of the two camps. “After all, the presidency has been prepared for more than 18 months. The new coalition government will comprise members from the outgoing government as well as the new one so you will have smooth transition and continuity,” he says.

Even so, the sight of a squabbling nation at the helm of the EU will not be a flattering one (neither for the perennially dysfunctional 27-member bloc of course). There is a question of Belgium’s image [abroad] but as the agenda has been already prepared there will be no paralysis,” says Vercauteren.

Pragmatism should be enough to save the day but not necessarily the nation’s face abroad.


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