Posts Tagged 'writer'

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.

Work. How does it work?

By Harry van Versendaal

After dissecting love, status, travel and architecture, the Swiss-born best-selling novelist and essayist Alain de Botton has returned with a photo essay on what we spend most of our lives doing: work. De Botton, visiting Athens for the launch of a Greek translation of his book “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” (Patakis), spoke to Athens Plus about his latest project.

Is giving interviews one of the sorrows of your work?

No, it’s actually one of the ways in which you get to realize what you’ve written. Often being asked to describe what you’ve written in other words can help you to focus. Sometimes I get a depressing realization, “oh that’s what I should have said”. You can capture an idea sometimes with a clarity that you were struggling for in a book.

So what are the pleasures and sorrows of working as a writer?

Writing is a very intrinsic need, it’s something that you would do just for yourself, and the idea that you can do something that is a passion as a career is a very nice feeling. That’s the pleasure. The sorrow is that it’s extremely precarious. If you’re trained to be a doctor and then you become a doctor and you have that qualification, you have it for life. Whereas as a writer you always start from zero. There is no intrinsic loyalty from your audience; and there is no intrinsic loyalty – to be pretentious – from your muse.

How did working on this book change the way you see your own work?

Most of us know one area of work, the one that we do most of the time. And so I was very familiar with the world of writing and associated industries like publishing, book-selling and the media. So this is the world I know and understand. But I was complete foreigner to lots of other worlds of work. I didn’t know anything about the world of accountancy, biscuits or satellite launches and yet was incredibly curious. I am generally very interested in other people’s jobs.

I suppose one of the things I learned was that all jobs are quite similar, if that doesn’t sound quite weird. There’s fascinating connections between all jobs. All jobs are at some level about trying to identify and then satisfy a hunger in another person whether that’s a physical hunger or a hunger for data or a hunger for biscuits or a hunger for ideas. It’s kind of structurally quite similar. The other terrible cliché generalization about work is that everything is very complicated. In order for anything to exist, this glass, this machine, this pen, an incredible number of people had to cooperate and coordinate their activities at a level that seems almost unbelievable to me outside. To get anything off the ground, it just involves so many things.  As consumers we tend to forget. You go out there and you look at tea being served. This is an incredible kind of ballet going on to get that room organized. It’s kind of monument of civilization and order. What you actually think of tea or of its ultimate purpose is another question. But it’s an impressive piece of organization; and everything tends to be.

In your book you seem to suggest that modern man is more interested in consumption than in the whole production process, meaning how stuff ends up on our plate or our living room.

I think modern man is almost not allowed to be interested in production because for whatever reason producers are not interested in letting us know about their processes of production. I did this little book about Heathrow airport and I say in the book that it’s far more interesting to look into how an airline meal is made than to eat it. Eating it is not interesting, it’s quite boring, almost horrible. But if you see how it’s made it’s absolutely awe-inspiring. And that applies to so many different jobs. It’s fascinating how tourism is always identified with leisure pursuit. If I went to the concierge now and said, “I’m in Athens and have bit of time, what shall I do?” Museum, church, monument etc. This is what the concierge would suggest. If I said I want to see how Athens works, I’d like to go to an office, they would say “you are crazy.”

Because nothing works, perhaps.

Well, yeah, even that is interesting. Even the non-working is interesting, the bizarre stalemates etc. But that is not on the tourist agenda.

You start out by describing the cargo docks in London. Why did that place intrigue you?

Partly, it was the idea that I had been living in London for 25-30 years and I’ve never actually known about this place. I just didn’t think about cargo really. I just didn’t think about where stuff came from. And there is a kind of almost childish interest and pleasure in working out where stuff come from.

What about the other occupations you describe?

They’re all areas that kind of fascinated me and it’s hard to know exactly why. They were unfamiliar, for example. A lot of them were slightly off-kilter. If you watch TV there’s quite a lot of information about being a nurse or a doctor, there’s always like hospital dramas. There’s quite a lot of information about being a lawyer or a criminal. But there’s not much information on logistics or biscuit manufacturing. So I wanted to pick things that I was kind of curious about but don’t get much media time. And each of the jobs that I chose sits on an intellectually interesting area. Take the chapter on biscuits. It could have been something else, like cheese or soap. What I wanted to look at there was the way in which in capitalist society enormous industries are built up out of selling things which will occupy only a very small moment or place in an individual’s life.

It’s something that leads to curious feelings of dislocation. Because if you’re a pretty highly-paid accountant at the biscuit company, you’ve got a company car, a nice office etc and you stand back from your life and you think “ok, what am I doing? I am accounting the Jaffa cake. That’s my job” Again, there is a kind of disconnection between the seriousness of the means and tools and the relative lack of seriousness, the lack of deeper meaning of the thing you are involved in.

You make no mention of journalists.

No, I guess I’m too close to them. I know them too well. I wanted to go on journeys, I suppose.

You’re quite disconnected from the jobs you describe.

Exactly. They are precisely the sort of jobs that people in my world are disconnected from. And I wanted to correct my ignorance. And I wanted to try and to see if I could do it, to try and describe these worlds in ways that would have any interest for other people. It was an artistic challenge.

You compare a working class view of work to a middle class view – work as a means to self-creation and self-fulfillment. The modern man was the first of its kind to see work as something you can derive pleasure from. Do you think the economic crisis is pushing us back to the earlier view? Someone is happy, I mean, just to have a job.

That’s right. The educational system is predominantly middle class. It is the promoter of a kind of bourgeois ideology. No one thinks that the mere point of work is survival. The idea is that the point of work is some kind of higher fulfillment. And that is the linchpin of a kind of bourgeois ideology. And, of course, it crushes headlong into economic reality. The classic situation now is the guy with a PhD and a masters who can’t find a job. But I think that will pass as the economic crisis eases. The deeper current is towards the bourgeois idea of work as self-realization – which remains a very difficult thing to do. People wonder, “why is it so hard to have a beautiful, creative job? Why is it hard to be Steve Jobs?” And it’s not merely because of the economic crisis but because most jobs in industrial civilization are procedural jobs, they are about making relatively routine processes more efficient. Competition is won by marginal efficiencies which require incredible disciplines of essentially accountancy and systematization. And that’s why not many people are going to be Steve Jobs.

You mention that employers used to hit people, now they are urging them to “have fun.” Surely, it’s not because they are nicer people.

That’s right. If you have the business section of a book shop most of business books are about this thing called “management.” What is management? Management is how do you incentivize people to feel engaged and excited about jobs which they might not naturally feel engaged and exited about. And a lot of jobs are essentially service jobs in one way or another. They are jobs that can very easily be destroyed by lack of motivation or even an unhelpful smile. That’s why there is an enormous investment in pseudo-happiness of employees.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in November 2009)

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