Amazed view of Western society
Dimitri Verhulst spent several sobering days in a Belgian centre for asylum-seekers. This led to Problemski Hotel in which the problems of asylumseekers are examined from a new angle. The narrator of Problemski Hotel, the Ethiopian photographer Bipul Masli, sketches an intriguing picture of life in the centre, a closed community with its own codes and patterns of life.
The inmates, who come from vastly different countries, are clever at stretching their slender resources. Cigarettes are bartered, betted with, and exchanged for sexual favours. There is a certain rivalry among the inmates: which has survived the worst horrors and therefore deserves to asylum? Boredom can be a problem, but more often the atmosphere feels edgy, with emotions running high, compounded by impatience.
Masli is perhaps the only one who realizes how little chance they actually have of being granted asylum. Most of them survive on false hopes or are making plans to escape from the centre if their application is rejected. Their dream is to reach England, even though they know that many before them have tried this route and lost their lives.
No one is happy with life in the centre, but problems are pushed to the background. Masli describes the daily routine with detached irony. Disappointments, humiliations, even unsuccessful attempts at integration in the world outside are recounted with a generous dollop of humour, and his unquenchable cheerfulness almost makes the reader forget the bitterness and desperation. The tireless attempts of the Pakistani Maqsood to gain recognition as a refugee are both comic and touching. When he learns that all he has to do to get a residence permit is marry a Belgian woman, he thinks his problems are over and he promptly does the rounds of the discos and marriage bureaus, which results in some comic scenes.
Dimitri Verhulst totally empathizes with these people and with their amazed, uncomprehending view of Western society, and uses them as a mirror to his readers to see themselves through the eyes of strangers.