| Diwan Special issue|

Kader Abdolah

Born in 1954 in Arak (Iran), lives in Delft (the Netherlands).


The Journey of Empty Bottles - De reis van de lege flasse (excerpt)

An aeroplane. Lately, an aeroplane has been coming into my dreams. Earlier, trains used to rush through my dreams. There were many of them and they made up real nightmares for me. Trains arriving. Trains departing. Trains that bring passengers towards me. And then return empty into the unknown. And now there is no more of them in my dreams. The last train took Rene away with it.

Rene was my neighbour. My first Dutch neighbour.

My world is composed of two parts. One is out there, in the mountains, in my homeland. The other is here, in a small village on the bank of the Ejsel river. No, I did not chose this division into halves. As a matter of fact, I had no choice. It wasn’t up to me.

I live in a house on a corner. On the right, there are no more houses. Rene lived in the house on the left. I met him for the first time in his backyard. Later, that became practically the only place where I would see him. All my memories of him are somehow connected to that backyard. Rene disappeared with the last train, but his backyard was still there.

When exactly was that?

I cannot remember anymore. But in March or April it will be about seven years since I first met Rene. As a refugee, I was offered a house. Somebody from the municipality brought us round to see it. Even though the road was on the other side, the clerk drove us around, along the Ajsel, on the other side of the embankment. I suppose he wanted to show us the area where our future home was going to be. Then he drove us down a narrow road through pastures next to old village farms. And then through a residential area. Suddenly, he stopped in front of a door at the very end of one of the streets.

I put my suitcase down in the middle of the empty living room and went to the window. Behind the house was a canal with water. I was not used to such a view. Everything that the municipality clerk had already shown us was now stretched before me. Green pastures. Towboats. Haystacks covered with black foils. Cows grazing. The embankment disappearing in the distance behind a tree line. And people taking their dogs out for a walk.

I used to look out the window and see hills. Now I felt like going out to the backyard, but I didn’t know which key to use to open the door. The clerk came to help me. Tall grass in the garden. Never before had my foot stepped onto Dutch grass.

I glanced at the neighbouring garden. First I saw a plum tree. There was no fruit on the tree yet, no, only later, during the summer, I saw them on the branches, in their magical colours, blue, black and purple, as they shined in the sun.

A few days later, I saw Rene in the garden. Tall. A head-length taller than me. Age forty-seven. Blond. I was thirty-three back then, and my hair was still black.

”Hello,” he shouted cheerfully.

”So, you’re my new neighbour?”

Although I had learnt some Dutch at the processing centre, I had not yet had a chance to use that knowledge in practice.

”Yes, yes,” I replied hesitantly, ”I neighbour.”

The fence was low and almost rundown, but it still created a barrier between us. At first I thought Rene lived alone, but that was not the case. From time to time, a girl would peer out the window. A girl of about fifteen, seventeen. I was already able to put together a few short sentences:

Who is that girl that peers out the window sometimes?

Is that your daughter?

Why do you live alone with your daughter?

However, I did not ask any of these questions. What have I got to do with their life! But, regardless of whether my curiosity was normal or not, such questions sprung to mind against my will.

Was Rene married?

I didn’t know.

And where is your wife, I could ask him.

That would not be right. Such questions are not asked. One usually hears such things from the neighbours or find out indirectly. Besides, my vocabulary and grammar were still too meagre for me to beat about the bush and procure the desired answers. We were newcomers. Foreigners. We still didn’t count. We had to wait for a long time yet to find out all the secrets of our neighbourhood.

We had been living in that neighbourhood, in that street for a few months, already. The neighbours passed by us without a word. As if, for them, we did not even exist. Admittedly, I did not pry too much myself, so I still did not know who lives where and who is married to whom. But, they kept a close eye on us. Women from the street would hind behind curtains, inspecting all day what new things we had bought.


”A dining table. No, a desk.”

”A mirror.”

”A clock. Look, they bought a big clock. What do they need that for?”

”A jacket. God knows, they probably got it at a flea market?!”

”Old-fashioned garden furniture.”

I took a chair out into the yard and sat down to study Dutch. It was warm outside. It was summer. I used to be able to study in the sun in my country, but that first summer in Holland, I just could not do it. I simply could not concentrate. The summer had dazed me. The birds, the windows through which I would stare, the trees, the grass, the ants, all those sounds, half-naked women in gardens – all of it drew my attention away, not allowing me to remember a single word of the foreign language.

Rene was lying in his garden. I saw only a tiny part of his milk-white back through the rundown fence. He really was very different from me!

He turned over. A leaf of grass hung by his bellybutton. Then he sat up a bit. All of a sudden, a fat, colourless, wrinkled penis appeared before my eyes. I swear I had never seen a cock like that, both that size and that colour! To be honest, until that moment, I had never seen anyone else’s dick. Oh, no, that’s not right. I had seen one, once. Only once. And not clearly, it was quite dark. I was the dick of Asgar de Kala, the bicycle repairman in my native village.

And it’s not that it was a taboo. It’s just that in my part of the world, it was not the most normal thing to see your neighbour naked. When I would go to the public bath with my father, there would usually be at least a hundred, a hundred and fifty men there. All of them washed themselves sitting down. With towels draped over their bellies. So, even though I was very curious, I never managed to see someone’s penis peeping out from underneath the large towel. My father would always admonish me:

”Sit properly, boy. Sit properly! You hear me? I must’ve told you a hundred times to settle down properly:”

My father had admonished me so many times that if I were to suddenly die right now, my hands would rest on my crotch out of fear.

Little by little I was faced with other strange things in the neighbourhood. And, I had to get used to it. I had to get used to all of it. The canal with water scared me. I was afraid that my little son may drown in it. The surroundings of the house where I was born were of a beautiful hue of stone. The rocks there would be a completely different colour when it was sunny than when it rained. And now I had to become accustomed to the predominant green here. An image of a cow with mist around it was also something new for me. I had no clue about Dutch rain showers, either. I would have waited for it to end, I didn’t feel like getting drenched at all – but there is no end to rain here! I had to get used to all those naked legs, abdomens, breasts, buttocks, and a completely new language. I also had to accept Rene, my neighbour, without underwear.

Although I spoke English, I believed it was imperative that I learn Dutch. It was my desire to surprise that girl, who sometimes appeared in the garden, with a few correct sentences in Dutch, at the precise moment when she came out to pick one of the dark-blue plums:

Morning. My name’s Bolfazl. What’s yours?

I bought a number of dictionaries. Dutch-English. English-Dutch. Dutch-Arabic. Arabic-Dutch. Dutch-Persian and Persian-Dutch did not exist. For whole days and whole nights, I was busy studying the language. I could already read, but I could not get the hang of proper pronunciation. I was still insecure, I hesitated a lot.

Half a year had passed, and I still hadn’t made real contact with Rene. I would usually see him in the garden.

”Hello,” he would shout.

”Hello,” I would reply.

Sometimes Dutch women came to our door. Since we were refugees, they would offer us used goods.

”Do you need this?”

”No, thank you very much.”

”Summer’s over, so I don’t need these anymore. Maybe you could use them? They’re clean, you know, I washed them well.”

”No, thank you very much.”

”Would you like to try on these clothes? They’re almost new, you know.”

”No, thank you very much.”

I didn’t know whether they were only seeking contact with us, or whether they wanted to give these things to us simply out of the goodness of their hearts. But, we saw the whole thing from completely different angles. For us, it was a type of underestimation. We came from a culture in which one never, under any circumstances, accepted used things as gifts.

”Bolfazl,” Rene shouted.


He was standing in the middle of the garden with an old man’s bicycle.

”I see you still don’t have a bicycle. Would you like this one, perhaps?” He had caught me completely unprepared.

”Oh, yes, thank you very much,” I told him. I really wanted to have a bicycle. With it, I would no longer be so constricted to the house. Besides, I accepted it because it seemed that Rene had purposely saved it for me.

I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since my youth. Rene had long legs. And I didn’t. At least not as long as his. But, that didn’t matter. I was already used to big bicycles. Before, at home, we had only one bicycle, and a big one at that, for all the men in the household. It was always in the hallway, available to everyone. For emergencies. If someone was sick and had to be taken to the town. To get medicine. To get the midwife.

Once, I grabbed the bicycle and sped to my father’s shop standing up on the pedals:

”Father! Come quick! Grandfather is not waking up anymore!”

Translated by Ulvija Tanović


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