Fall Arts 2018
There’s nothing quite like spending a night in an airport detention facility due to racist immigration policies to really kickstart that existential crisis you’ve been putting off. That’s more or less the whole story in Mohamed Asem’s slim but revealing memoir from Portland’s Perfect Day Publishing, Stranger in the Pen.
On his return to the UK from a vacation, immigration officials at the Gatwick Airport stop Asem and direct him to the airport’s detention “pen” for further screening. To them, Asem doesn’t fit into any of their boxes. He’s a financially independent Kuwaiti man who was born in the US, raised in Paris, graduated with an MFA in fiction from a university in London, and who looks almost exactly like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. For those sins—in addition to the sins of having Mohamed as a first name—the authorities are suspicious enough to hold him in the pen. Ultimately, Asem is confined for being cool.
While he endures the annoyances of racial profiling, the caprice of low-level functionaries, and the terrible food, Asem wonders what the hell he’s been doing with his life. His nomadic, literary-themed travels across Europe haven’t been fruitful. His fiction manuscript isn’t exactly writing itself. His family is pressuring him to find a nice girl and settle down, but he seems forever to be falling in love with unattainable women. And on top of all that, he’s not sure if he wants to land in the United States or Kuwait. Both seem like volatile places for different reasons.
Asem’s pining for old crushes takes up a little too much space in the book. His dialogue in these sections is wooden, his rejections don’t seem particularly notable or pathetic, and the physical descriptions of the love interests fall flat. He’s so obsessed with the phenomenon of a strand of hair falling across a woman’s brow that he describes it happening on two separate occasions with two different women. It’s an effort, of course, to assert the special particularity of his affection. But repeating the descriptor betrays the opposite.
That said, Asem’s reflections on the differences between how he sees himself and how the state sees him are fascinating, and his writing about social life and culture in Kuwait make for some strikingly gorgeous passages. Like many mixed people or people with dual citizenships, he doesn’t fully belong to any one group, and so he belongs nowhere. He’s too Western-cosmopolitan for some Kuwaitis, but too apparently Arab to slip through customs unmolested in Britain or the US.
These unstable identities are confusing enough in his own head. But Asem’s story reminds us that, in the hands of the state, they’re used as weapons. Country of origin, apparent race, name—these are accidents of birth that tell very little about a traveler’s intentions or their ultimate identity. They’re not particularly useful in separating terrorists from non-terrorists. Banning people from certain countries or using those details to justify extra scrutiny merely reflects the long history of racism and xenophobia in the US and the UK, and ultimately makes us less safe.
The bullshit Asem went through at the Gatwick airport seems relatively mild compared to the stories of family separation or people forced to return to countries they haven’t lived in for years, but his is an important and interesting read for exactly that reason. If immigration officials behave this badly with a guy who speaks English and looks like Sarkozy, you can imagine how they behave when interrogating people who don’t.