Longread: “Either get married, or go to Europe.”

Dit artikel is een hoofdstuk uit het boek “A Refugee – From Erbil to Amsterdam” van Taleb Ibrahim dat uit het Arabisch naar het Engels is vertaald door Amal Abdulmawla & Abdulla Fadel.

My name is Sabah Khalil. I’m from Kurdistan. After I finished my studies at Erbil University, Faculty of English Literature, my father gave me fifteen thousand dollars and said: “Either get married, or go to Europe.”

The word ‘Europe’ rapidly slipped out of my father’s mouth, but my sensitive ears picked it up and gave it legs. Oh, father! Europe, just like that?!

Europe had already entered my dreams through Hajji.

For a long time, Hajji had met us almost daily to tell us about the details of his colourful life in Europe. Every night, he would talk of his adventures: with beautiful women, with the varieties of food, with a nature that had been created by another god. How the China painting of the plates blended with delicious aromas and flowing tastes. The attention of cooks, attendants and waiters. He would talk about his continuous travels, on trains stuffed with women, about the cars that he bought, one after the other, in different colours and models. He would tell of the parties, decorated with beautiful women or people of the third sex – yes, the third sex. In his numerous talks and stories, where he mixed dreams with reality, Hajji would insist that there are three genders: male, female and the third sex.

I was still a high-school student when a classmate invited me to spend the night at his house. A young man had just returned from Europe and he had a lot of stories to tell. My classmate invited me to spend a night of dreams, to laughter and fun, and listen to the fabrications of someone who had returned empty-handed, but who still insisted he had won.

Hajji’s stories

On the first night, Hajji had greeted me warmly. He said that I was young and that he would provide me with every necessary idea to qualify me to enter the dreams. That same night, my classmate said that a relative of his was about to die, as doctors had diagnosed him with cancer.

Cancer, that was Hajji’s cue to that night’s speech. “Cancer is rare in Europe. Cancer enters the body slowly and calmly. If doctors diagnose it early enough, it is not dangerous at all. In Europe, the doctors know the histories of all citizens. Each citizen has a personal record and regular tests. Even if he has cancer, the doctors will diagnose it in time and give the patient the appropriate remedy. In Europe, no one dies unless his lifespan is over. Cancer! No way!”
Hajji had uttered his last sentence laughing. He sipped his tea and asked for some sugar.

Before leaving, I asked my classmate: “Is Hajji insane?”
I didn’t believe a word he said, but the next day I listened to him again. I had the feeling that his chatter was full of fabrications, but on the third day I was present again. And then I became a permanent attendee.

In the wake of Hajji’s stories, television acquired a different taste and food a different flavour. So did our lessons, trips, words, sleep and pleasures. Hajji the loser had awakened our hopes; we in Dara Al-Kabira, one hour away from Erbil.

Hajji was sitting on a chair and we sat around him, as if he was a colourful European apostle in our grey country. He ordered a glass of burgundy coloured tea. In his own words, his trademark in all the countries that he had visited. And he lighted a hand-rolled cigarette, having become used to it and no longer liking Marlboros or any other brand. Hand-rolled cigarettes are the Western world’s trade mark and his passion. That kind of cigarette required time to be made, time and skill and that’s why he liked it. He, who spread the tobacco on the paper, smoothed its soft circles, and wet the edges of the paper with his saliva. Rolling a cigarette would take away moments of his life, but by smoking it he’d recapture the fruit of those moments in pure pleasure.

“Drink your tea, lads!” Hajji said. One sip of tea wetted the cigarette’s course, and instead of one pleasure, you’d feel two. “Life is pleasure,” Hajji said. “Life is pleasure and you’ll have to live it before age will overtake you and you’ll lose your battles. Smoking is pleasure, tea is pleasure, Europe, which you don’t know, is pleasure…”

No, no, no, Europe is the pleasure of pleasures. I do not recall exactly when the erotic stories of Hajji entered our life. I do not know when that started. He, nonetheless, satiated my thoughts and inflamed my repressed feelings. I doubted the veracity of many of his stories and his adventures, but I believed that he was a talented young man and a brilliant storyteller, that he excelled in narration in spite of his failure in life.

That was what I thought, and that was what motivated me, on a rainy day, to befriend him. For me, Hajji was no longer that young man who chit-chatted during moments of leisure. No, no, no, he became the indispensable young man, the young man who coloured my dark life. Hajji was like the rain outside that I had left watering the earth.

The pleasures of Europe

“Today, I’m going to recount to you one of my utmost pleasures in France. I’m going to tell you about Matilda of France. She was from Nice, but she lived in Paris. She worked as supervisor in a factory of ultralight aeroplanes. Searching for a job, I was paying a visit to the manager of the factory, William Proute, after being introduced by an acquaintance. Just entering the factory with the manager and trying to attract the attention of all the working girls was enough, but my heart was seized by the eyes of Matilda – two windows from revolutionary days. Her eyes were like two revolutions, coming of age behind a blue desk at the aeroplane factory. Her eyes were like the wings of a French plane, fluttering in an oasis of warmth through the air.”

Words and names flowed from Hajji’s mouth in an amazing smoothness, like an outright lie that sounds like glaring truth. That night, Hajji went out with Matilda. They drank wine, ate French Roquefort cheese, which we cannot stomach. But she loved it, especially with a glass of red wine, as red as her own lips.

Hajji licked his lips, as if recalling the scene of that Parisian night. But tonight he was around the corner of Al-Doura Street, one hour away from Erbil. Matilda’s hair was very long; it would annoy him while he tried to suck her. The hair would cascade on his chest and on both their shoulders. It would cover all the places Hajji wanted to see. She would laugh, and then gather the strands of her hair in her warm hands and scatter them behind her neck. Directly, the long fair blond hair would rebound, to disrupt his Parisian night tour around the details of Matilda’s body.

Hajji tried to explain the details of that body, but he only remembered the long hair and its twists and its intermingling with the combined sweating of their bodies. Before the night’s seconds had passed, Hajji ended his European tour in our Erbil night, in the details of tea and Kurdish tobacco, while we were twisting around our bulges and erections in a mass of dreams, fed by each Hajjic sentence.

“Hajji, why have you returned?” a stranger had asked. He was a stranger that was keen on spending his night listening to Hajji’s stories. He had come from another village, where the stories of the homecoming Hajji had arrived.

“I love Kurdistan, I adore her. I want to spend the rest of my life among the Kurds, to tell them about the beautiful life that’s going on beyond these mountains. I have returned to tell you that there are treasures in life that should be in your hands. Only when I’m certain that my mission has been accomplished I’ll return to Europe. Not before I’ve transmitted my experience to your ears.”

Hajji occupied a large portion of my heart. He occupied others’ hearts as well. Later on, the older men of my village started to spend evenings in his company. We were not allowed to join them.
I wondered if Hajji had told them the stories of Matilda of France, or of Anna, the Belgian woman he had met at a bar. How the two of them had gone back to her place, and how next morning, when they got up after a Belgian night replete with kisses, she had asked him who he was and what he was doing in her place. I wondered if he had told them about Fatima the Moroccan, the one he had undressed in the Dutch Hilversum Forest before it had started to rain and the two of them got drenched along with their clothes, lying on fresh stalks of grass. I wondered if my father had listened to Hajji’s stories. Had he listened to them? Had he believed them?

Had Hajji become the inspiration of the men of my village? Had he inspired my father as well? My mind was troubled by my father’s financial gift. The word ‘Europe’ had not slipped out of his mouth unintended, and made me think my father had believed Hajji. It came to my mind that this large amount of money would be the key to my future life, but how could I choose?

Family or Europe?

“A wife, a house and children, and you quietly go on with your life. You’re the first teacher in our family; a graduate of Erbil University,” my mother said. She wished for me to marry her niece – she was beautiful, well brought up and a perfect housekeeper. My sister wished that as well. My mother and sister had never heard Hajji’s stories.

“Europe is beautiful women. Europe is life. Whatever your dreams were made of, you cannot imagine a young man’s life in Europe. Sabah! Europe is a real paradise; a paradise on earth,” said Hajji the Kurd. “I stayed there for seven years and I can say that those days passed like seconds. I visited every corner. I had lost my life in my country, but I gained those seven years. Don’t waste your life here, Sabah. Now, you have a chance to escape Erbil and its repugnance and boredom. You have a chance to see Matilda’s and other women’s hair. I would not hesitate if I were you.”

Hajji had returned because he had missed Kurdistan. He had yearned to inhale her air and drink her water; he felt that he had a mission to carry out in Kurdistan and only then he’d go back to the Europe that he was yearning for as well. Yearning was Hajji’s main motive. Yearning can be a pleasure, if one can steer its rudder. Thus spoke Hajji.

Yearning motivated Hajji, but what motivated me? Boredom! Only boredom would motivate me to leave. Boredom would lead me towards change. If ever I happened to be overcome with yearning, I would come back.

Oh, mother dear! I was the youngest of my extended family, but I was their most beloved one as well. They reasoned that my payback would be this amount of money, which would open a door to the future and shortcut years of hard work. I alone would have to decide what to do with that sum of money. Oh my dear mother!

I would leave. This large sum of money would take me to Europe, far beyond the mountains of Kurdistan… to a world that was completely different from these present arrangements, ones that I knew as the palm of my hand, something different from this deadly routine… Europe was ‘something else’. “My dear mother, I will leave. Europe! Countries of beauty and beautiful girls that Hajji showered me with by his stories.” I would leave.

To Europe, then! I’d made up my mind. I would go to Europe and get married there. “I will go to Europe,” I said. That day, my father smiled as if I had fulfilled a long-awaited desire. To be a Kurd and to have a son living in Europe is the best attribute that a Kurdish father might have in Kurdistan. I met Abu Mannan, the smuggler, through a long series of friends.

“The smuggling journey to Germany costs twelve thousand dollars,” Abu Mannan said. “If you agree you will have to deposit the money with a person known to both of us. When you arrive in Germany, you will call that person to tell him that you have arrived safely. Then, he will give me the money.”

Abu Mannan was very short, shorter than me, even. I was sure he did not belong to the Median civilization; our civilization, us Kurds. This was obvious from his plain Kurdish language. He did not get involved in any discussion. He spoke in brief. You want to arrive in Europe, this is the main point. He did not care about anything else.

Depositing the money with a man of Abu Mannan’s acquaintances, I had put my whole future at stake. I did not know the man, but a classmate of mine did. Check everything, said my father.

“’Check everything!’ Oh, father! How can I check?” The gates of the dream don’t stop at the doorsteps of anxiety. My dreams were now suspended at the thresholds of an anxiety that almost bent me in half: a smuggler, whom I didn’t know, and knew nothing about, was the sole lead to my well-known dream. Abu Mannan now was the route.

I told my father that I had checked everything and that everything was going well. Consumed by anxiety, I’d try to visit Abu Mannan through my friend who knew him, but Abu Mannan would refuse to speak, assuring me that everything was going well and that I had to calm down and wait. “You are not the first Kurd to leave Erbil through my hands and you will not be the last,” he would say.

He was not used to tell his clients about his plans, and would not give them the details of transit. He would utter a single sentence, summarizing the trust that binds unknown smugglers with foolish clients: calm down and wait.

Every night, anxiety would burn my eyes. I would leave my bed and repack my travelling bag. I would delude myself that Abu Mannan might show up that night to give me the map of transit to Europe and bid me goodbye. I would rearrange my clothes in the bag; take out some clothes, only to pack them again next day. Every night I would have a dream of betrayal, a dream that the smuggler had run away and that my future had faded away in tunnels of illusion. Next morning, I would realise that nothing new had happened: no running away, no smuggling, and no illusions.

Transit to Istanbul

On a dreary night, just as anxious as any other nights in Erbil, Abu Mannan asked me to travel to Istanbul. Just like I knew him, my father said his goodbyes with no smiles, no crying, and no hugs. Only my mother cried, and my sister hugged her. My brothers smiled and asked me not to worry, as they would always be my last resort, and because they were my brothers whom I knew so well.

It took me two days to arrive in Istanbul. Shoro, Abu Mannan’s friend, received me there and led me to a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Istanbul, a quarter that lives off Istanbul’s refuse. The name of that part of town was Sultanbeyli. It had nothing to do with Sultans, save in name. However, in terms of life and population, it was closer to the miserable lives of peasants in the Sultan’s farms, or of the homeless who staid alive only because the Lord was busy otherwise, or because history had forgotten about them.

Shoro led me through the alleyways, among children dirtied with chaos, among women wandering about under loose headscarves. He warmly greeted a shopkeeper and bought some food and drink. He talked to the shopkeeper who was watching me, recording my features in his visual memory. I watched the vegetables in their baskets on both sides of the door, and the fruits suspended in ropes; inside the shop, the shelves were crammed with colourful goods.

After a long walk, we arrived at a poor dwelling in Sultanbeyli. When we entered, five dwellers raised to welcome us. Shoro gave them the sacks of the stuff that he had bought from the shop. He asked them to receive me, told them that travel was imminent, and left.

I stayed in that dwelling for six days. Neither I nor the other men ventured out. I was from Turkey, as Shoro had instructed me. Upon Shoro’s request I hid my real identity from the other men and, I think, they did the same. They were an Iraqi man, two Afghani brothers, and two other men who did not say a word.

We ‘practiced’ silence, much more than the ‘practice’ of talking. We feared each other. Each of us contained his secrets. Each one contained the white lie offered him by Shoro, the tall tale that each one of us came from a country other than his homeland; in fact, each one of us knew exactly that the other was lying. Shoro came to see us once a day, bringing food, and exhorting us, the silent ones, to keep silent and not to annoy the neighbours, promising that the journey would come soon, just as he had done the day I arrived. All that we had to do was to just keep calm and wait.

I approached him once and talked to him in Kurdish, which I had learned at Erbil’s schools and university. I told him that I wanted to leave my prison; I wanted to see the real Istanbul before leaving. I wanted to see the city that our geography book at school, ‘Geography of the World’, described as an old-modern masterpiece, the most beautiful city in the world as it held in its palms the past with its beautiful expressions and the present with all its arts. I wanted to tell him two things that I thought were important, to get his permission for me to meet Istanbul. First, that I was a Kurd from a country that was building its Kurdish identity step by step, and second, that I was a university graduate who knew a lot, and was different from the other unknown dwellers. But he rejected my request calmly, but strictly. When I asked him again, he got angry and shouted at me, warning me not to repeat my request.

I had read about Istanbul’s markets, its clean streets and beautiful girls, but I saw nothing of that, save for a miserable dwelling in Sultanbeyli with its group of dwellers, who were disguising under Shoro’s instructions, and who wanted to reach Europe through Shoro’s fat fingers, the fingers that had swollen because of carrying food sacks every day to the pitiable Sultanbeyli.

I tried, many times, to draw back the curtains that shut out the windows; I wanted to see a street where a young woman would walk down, or an alley where a group of young men would gather around, but the others objected. They showed more care than me to abide by Shoro’s orders. I was frightened of everything, though I had told my father that I had checked everything. I was afraid that the smuggler might leave us in the dreariness of Sultanbeyli or in the throng of Istanbul. I was afraid of running out of money, or what was left of it, or having the money stolen by my silent companions and that I would be unable to return to Erbil. I was afraid that the smuggler, Shoro, might run away. I was afraid of being arrested by the Turkish police, along with the other refugees, residents of the canned dwelling in Sultanbeyli that “has nothing in common with Sultans save its name.”

My fears came to an end, when, on an Istanbul morning, Shoro told us that we would leave that night, reminding us to carry our things with us. He asked us to clean up the place and to wait for him.

It was a moony night, similar to those nights of Erbil where the barking of foxes breaks through the distance; the beautiful nights of September, the onset of active autumn with the weary summer packing to leave; the nights inflamed by Hajji’s stories. That night was like an angle of the great hope that had just squeezed through the gate in the narrow Beyli. We left the dwelling calmly, one after the other. Shoro led us to a small car. We hardly managed to squash in. It had room for three persons, but we, the six dwellers of the canned dwelling, were sitting in it.


In the late hours of that night, the car took us across the Bulgarian-Turkish borders. It was small and we were stuffed inside it like tinned sardines; a canned car carrying canned refugees from a canned dwelling in Sultanbeyli.

Before boarding the car, the smuggler had taken our bags and threw them into a nearby valley, saying “We have agreed that I’ll transport you, but not your stuff.” He confiscated our ID cards and hid them away. I objected at first, but, later I gave up. I reckoned Europe would not need my ID card, a card to prove that I’m Kurdish from Erbil, a Kurd in a photograph showing my features and my short hair in front of a white board, a photograph that had once been taken by a Kurdish photographer in a secluded studio at the edges of Erbil.

Upon the orders of the young smuggler, the last one in Abu Mannan’s long series, we carried nothing save our bodies and the clothes on our backs. My backpack, which contained clothes, a notebook to record my memoirs and some other effects, now lies at the bottom of a nearby valley, far away from Sultanbeyli of Istanbul.

When the smuggler threw away my stuff, he also threw away the telephone number of an acquaintance of my father in Sweden. He said that I could ask my father for the number when I called him. He asked me if I knew my father’s number by heart, and I assured him that I did. Led by the young smuggler, we walked through a forest in the middle of the night. He would order us to creep and we would creep; to run and we would run; to stop and we would stop. We were not hindered by the road of fear and danger. We were not deterred by the teeming howling of wolves, by the long grass and thorns, nor by the sounds of water flowing from a river, a spring, a stream, or a sky. We walked behind the smuggler who was holding a pistol in his hand. He ordered us to walk close to each other, to keep our eyes wide-open, and to keep watching in all directions.
“We are in a battle and we have to win. We have no other choice,” he said.

Just before sunrise, we got into another car which drove us for long hours. It crossed the distance of my vomit, dizziness, and sleep. On a dirt road similar to those in my village, on the thigh of a teenage mountain similar to those in my village, a lorry was waiting for us. We got into the back. A narrow corridor had been cleared among the boxes for us, to creep into the depth of the cargo space. We sat there motionless. Each one of us had a bottle of water, a box of biscuits, some chocolate bars, and plastic bags to urinate and defecate in.

We were supposed to stay in the lorry, motionless and soundless. The smuggler’s instructions were clear and needed no explanation, and he refused to hear any objections. I did not excrete faeces in a plastic bag so as not to have it close to my nose, and to the chocolate bars and water; but the others did. I did not see them because of the darkness and because each one of them sat in a corner, except for the Afghanis who sat together. However, the smell of their bowels reached me at intervals. We got off the truck three times, to breathe in some air.

In the final round, it was totally dark when I screamed that I wanted to empty my bowels. Running into the nearby trees, amid the warnings of the driver and his persistent attempts at stopping me, I entered the forest and evacuated via all of my orifices. The smuggler struck me in the face and threatened to kill me next time I did not heed his warnings. Then, he said: “I’ll not kill you; I’ll leave you in the forest to be chewed up by wolves. We will not be delayed because of the bowels of a pampered traveler. Not a Kurd, an Iraqi, an Afghani, nor anyone else shall hinder our progress.” I retreated into my corner and, crouching, I slept soundly.

We switched to another, similar truck to cross the Romanian-Hungarian borders, according to the smuggler. Then, we transferred to a lorry transporting perfumes or cleaning powders. It’s smell was nice compared with that of the previous lorries. But after hours, the scent became a nightmare. It was so pungent, it gave me an allergy and I could not stop coughing and sneezing. On another night, the smuggler gave us tranquillizers, as he described them, and we all swallowed them. He said that Slovakian police were very strict, and he was worried lest the noise of our coughs reached the ears of those folks. Once again each of us got a bag with biscuits, a bottle of water, chocolate bars and plastic bags to urinate and defecate in.

At a late hour of another night, the lorry suddenly stopped. The smuggler lifted the big tarpaulin cover at the familiar corner and asked us to get down quickly, saying: “We’ve reached Germany.”
“How long have we been on the road?” I asked.
“With me, three days,” he replied. He was tall and large and wore a winter hat on a big head with grey tresses cascading on both sides. He picked me out of the group, dialled a number on his mobile phone and asked me to talk. On the other end was the man with whom I had deposited the money. I rapidly said: “I’m Sabah Khalil. I’ve reached Germany. Please hand over the deposit.”


The smuggler pointed to a far building with a flag flying above the edge and he said: “This is Germany welcoming you!”
According to the strict smuggler, that was enough to signal that we had crossed the final borders to reach Germany. My legs were not as I had known them. They hardly carried me. I wanted to vomit, but could not. My nose and throat were itching and each time I tried to talk, a bout of coughing attacked me. I did not know if I was hungry, thirsty, or tired, if I felt inflamed or empty. At that moment, I was nothing. My legs were made for collapse. On the roadside, I fell down.

My travel companions disappeared at lightning speed. I saw them jump out of my sight like rabbits. We had been together since the Sultan of Istanbul, but here in the Sultan of Germany they scattered like defeated armies. How could they stand up, jump, and run away, while I failed to? I yelled at them, asking them to stop, to carry me, to wait for me, but a fit of coughing silenced me. They disappeared, while my coughs were jumping after their long strides along the empty road. The smuggler had warned us not to talk about the way we had reached Europe. He also asked us to separate and walk in different directions. We tried to ask what to do now! He said that his mission was done.

The building that the smuggler had been pointing to was an isolated house or a cafeteria, and the silence was enough to make me realize that no assistance could be sought from anyone at that hour. I walked in the direction indicated by the smuggler. I heard the sound of my footfalls. Perhaps my vanishing companions had found their way, or they were lost just like me. I was exhausted, hungry and too weak to resist the cold blows that opened big holes in my body. At that moment, filled with misery, I missed the warmth of the lorry’s boot, the toughness of the smuggler; I missed the sleep and the smells.

The lights of a car in the distance lit the face of the sky and kindled a little hope in the fissures of my fear, but that vanished rapidly. I remembered the smuggler’s advice: “Don’t walk on the highway, so as not to fall in the hands of the police; walk alongside it. If the police find you, don’t tell them how you arrived there. Invent another story. Change the colours of the lorries you’ve used. Change the times.”

At any case, I didn’t know the colours of those lorries, as I had not seen them, save from my stench-ridden corner. I didn’t know how long we had travelled, what countries we had crossed and from where. I didn’t know how many days we had been travelling. And what day it was. In my dreariness, fear, and tension, I wished to fall in the hands of police. I left the highway. My hunger drove me to a dreary forest, but my fear brought me back. How many hours had passed while I was moving between the forest and the highway? How many blinks of the eye, beats of the heart, tremors of the hand, and twitching of the foot had occurred that night, before being stopped by the police, at last? I was afraid of the police, but at that moment, I felt safe in their hands.

Beeld: Chmee2/Valtameri CC BY 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Taleb Ibrahim is journalist and radiomaker at RNW Media. He is a coordinator for all Syrian affairs on hunasotak.com website and for Syrian partners and stakeholders in the region. Taleb is also a manager 'Ma3akom satellite channel'. He wrote four books: "Refugee - From Arbel to Amsterdam" (novel), "Ray of sunshine" (stories), "Quistions" (stories) and ''Contaminate words'' (poetry).