Stateless: One Man’s Struggle for an Identity by Gerard van Leeuwen
I’ve never really been a fan of biographies. I’ve just not been able to connect with the idea of an author setting out to tell the story of another. Biography is essentially written with the help of extensive research, both primary or secondary: the former involving talking directly to the source or subject of the work, and the latter being through exploring different documents to piece together a story.
This is something that has drastically shifted since reading Kamal’s story as told by Gerard van Leeuwen.
Van Leeuwen tells us right off the bat in the prologue where he met Kamal, the subject of this biography. We learn straight away how he came to learning the complex, sometimes unbelievable, details of Kamal’s life from birth until their meeting.
Structured by dates and locations, we are given the chance to experience the many different and instrumental periods of Kamal’s life. While reading this book, I could almost see a map in my head, bouncing from location to location, trying to picture where and how Kamal’s life was happening. Van Leeuwen gives very well detailed descriptions of the places Kamal lived and the people he held close to himself.
In essence, Kamal’s story is that of his parents and of his own, neatly weaved together by the fabric of time and place. There are so many reasons why Kamal was unable to obtain the identity he so longed for. Of the many, most importantly seem to be that his birth was never registered in Zagreb, Yugoslavia in 1944 and his father’s political and moral loyalties.
What I particularly loved about this book is exactly what I believe the author tries to convey: the importance of identity. We can truly feel Kamal’s struggle to find his own identity when in the eyes of the state – any state for that matter – he simply did not exist.
Identity and existential crises are at the core of growing up and learning how to navigate this world that we live in. For many of us, knowing exactly who we are and where we come from helps us with this quest: I am a daughter of immigrants, I have overcome severe anxiety and depression, I myself an immigrant, I am a cancer survivor. These are the things among others I know about myself and can reach for and hold onto when I am feeling lost.
Without a birth certificate, Kamal encountered many situations where he was simply not regarded as a person, an individual. One of the most riveting and powerful lines comes to us in the epilogue, where Kamal is quoted saying:
‘The eye sees more than the hand can grasp. That is how it has always been for me. I saw it, I wanted it, but I could not reach it.’
This absolutely resonated with me and put so much more emphasis and depth into Kamal’s story. For some, this may be a story of trying to get travel documents, but for Kamal, and many people in our day and age, this is a story of being treated and valued as an individual.
I recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning more about how difficult it can be to know one’s self, when it feels like no one else is willing to validate their humanity.
I received this book in exchange for an honest review in collaboration with Amsterdam Publishers.