Taming the Immigrant: Musings of a Writer in Exile

15 January, 2022,
All illus­tra­tions cour­tesy artist/graphic nov­el­ist Hamid Sulaiman (b. 1986, Damascus).

 

I look behind me and see my tracks, but cannot see me

Ahmed Naji

 

Let’s pre­sume that your heal­ing is com­plete, who then will bury the rot­ting corpse of the past?

 

I see no impu­ri­ty or weak­ness in fear, unlike courage which I have often found to be syn­ony­mous with male fol­ly. In fact, if any­thing, fear keeps you alert, vig­i­lant, in a state of inter­nal med­i­ta­tion even, one that enables you to grad­u­al­ly build up your psy­cho­log­i­cal defens­es. I refer here to a spe­cif­ic lim­it­ing fear; one that has noth­ing to do with pan­ic, hor­ror, or dis­tress in response to a per­ceived and clear threat but one that is instead sub­tle and tame. A fear that, as infants, we ingest­ed with our mother’s milk, and after we were weaned, it moved on to become a com­po­nent of our dai­ly sus­te­nance that we were fed mixed with decep­tion, lies and con­ceal­ment, all that we relied on to survive.

A fear laden with advice such as Lis­ten to what you’re told, Walk the line, Stay out of trou­ble, If a bul­ly stops you don’t fight him and give him all you’ve got, Eat up or the food you leave on your plate will run after you on Judg­ment Day, If you mas­tur­bate you’ll go blind and weak­en your knees, Say please, Say Alham­dulil­lah, Don’t dis­cuss pol­i­tics, Wear an under­shirt,” etc, etc, etc, and before you know it, Boom! You’ve reached ado­les­cence and you learn the neces­si­ty of step­ping out of a traf­fic officer’s way should you encounter him in the street, con­ceal­ing your iden­ti­ty from those you talk to, and nev­er dis­cussing reli­gion with any­one, so that by ear­ly adult­hood you find that your prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence with fear up to that point has earned you the abil­i­ty to prac­tice life ful­ly with it con­stant­ly by your side: You make love to your girl­friend whilst sur­round­ed by mul­ti­ple fears that begin with the neigh­bors poten­tial­ly break­ing in to the house, being stopped by a police offi­cer in the street, a ripped con­dom, your friend returns home before you two are fin­ished, for her female cousin to learn of your affair, or her mother’s male cousin to encounter the two of you togeth­er, and yet in spite of all these fears, Arab love sto­ries per­sist and grow; we mar­ry, we pro­cre­ate and we separate.

A total life spent in the com­pa­ny of fear, for who are we to refuse the fear or rebel against it? We are a peo­ple who con­sume fear instead of crois­sants with our cof­fee; we are the own­ers of sharp and hurt­ful tongues that punc­ture holes in our brav­ery, strength, fas­tid­i­ous­ness and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, and all our beau­ti­ful Arab val­ues on rebel­lious­ness, brav­ery, and dar­ing feats that are invoked in the songs of Egypt­ian fes­ti­vals in which the artists string lyrics about their abil­i­ty to take up arms and see any bat­tle to its bit­ter end seem in vain when some­one like Cap­tain Hani Shak­er, Head of the Syn­di­cate of Musi­cal Pro­fes­sions in Egypt, hounds artists and forces them to swal­low their words. Intim­i­dat­ed, they cave in, because they, like all of us, were raised in fear too.

 


 

I admit that the pre­vi­ous para­graph is long and full of scat­tered ideas and images, and I am aware that one of the guide­lines of elo­quent edit­ing dic­tates that I break up my para­graphs and sen­tences into short­er ones. I must rid the text of every­thing that could poten­tial­ly dis­tract the read­er from the work’s cen­tral theme. As I re-read the pre­vi­ous para­graph, I feel a creep­ing fear and hear a chaf­ing voice that orders me “to write as one ought to, to tow the line, to define my idea, to express my thoughts min­i­mal­ly and pre­cise­ly, to keep the text clean and sim­ple.

In all prob­a­bil­i­ty, I’ll suc­cumb to this type of fear, sole­ly for its nov­el­ty, a non-Arab fear if you will, one unlike the one my moth­er, my soci­ety and my gov­ern­ment instilled in me, one I’ll liken to a swarm of invad­ing ants that have stealth­ily tak­en res­i­dence, fes­ter­ing inside of me in the last few years since my move to Amer­i­ca, eat­ing away at my self-con­fi­dence, sev­er­ing all com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the real me. Are you get­ting any of this? Do you know what I’m try­ing to say? Nev­er mind, let’s start at the begin­ning one more time. And yet, there is no begin­ning point to return to, I am in the mid­dle, stuck with fear in a hole whose walls are screens that dis­play urban land­scapes, and stun­ning images of nature from the North Amer­i­can continent.

 


I Love Wasta, Hate Standing in Line in Egypt, But I Am Poor, by Ahmed Naji


Cod­ing to the degree of encryp­tion, exces­sive puns, con­ceal­ing self-dis­or­der and its para­dox­es under the pre­text of writ­ing about the com­mon human con­di­tion are but some of the con­se­quences of grow­ing up under rigid insti­tu­tions that expect­ed blind obe­di­ence, out­comes that have in turn meta­mor­phosed into the essen­tial ele­ments that con­sti­tute the genet­ic make­up of mod­ern Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture. Ulti­mate­ly, this may not dif­fer much from the prac­tices of decep­tion, lies and con­ceal­ment which we prac­tice to sur­vive, but the writer turns his fear and attempts to escape into art or lit­er­a­ture or even into a mud­dled text like this one.

Thanks to the Inter­net, I mas­tered the art of con­ceal­ment pret­ty ear­ly on. The Inter­net proved to be my hole in the wall, a way out of the iso­la­to­ry cells that fear erects between indi­vid­u­als. In a time before social media and vir­tu­al iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, I, like every­one else, used my fair share of pseu­do­nyms to estab­lish my first social rela­tion­ships away from fam­i­ly and school. As I wrote and pub­lished under many bor­rowed names, with­out the knowl­edge of my fam­i­ly or even my clos­est friends, I not only found my voice and writ­ing style, but I fell in love with writ­ing anony­mous­ly. How­ev­er, when I final­ly chose to pur­sue a career in lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism, the detach­ment I had main­tained between my hid­den per­sona and the pub­lic one quick­ly dis­in­te­grat­ed, until the wall total­ly caved in between Iblis (Satan) — my pseu­do­nym at the time — and Ahmed Naji.

Sub­se­quent­ly, near­ly every encounter I have had with some­one who knew about my writ­ings on the Inter­net, would inject their com­ments with words such as “young,” “qui­et” and “unas­sum­ing” as if attempt­ing to rec­on­cile the two per­sonas was prov­ing too dif­fi­cult. Suf­fice to say, that with ‘Satan’ put to rest, my name, Ahmed Naji, is what I go by on all social media platforms.

 

Illus­tra­tion Hamid Sulaiman.

I left Egypt alone. A writer with no affil­i­a­tion to any polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, wan­dered astray from my reli­gious and nation­al groups. How­ev­er, once I arrived in Amer­i­ca, this lost all val­ue and mean­ing, for no soon­er had I pre­sent­ed myself at the ter­mi­nal gates did I not only receive the offi­cial gov­ern­ment stamp, but left the air­port brand­ed with a who­r­ish array of labels that I nev­er got to have a say in choos­ing nor could make sense of.

Soon, how­ev­er, the minu­ti­ae of dai­ly life in exile com­pels one, espe­cial­ly in the field of writ­ing and cul­tur­al work, to grad­u­al­ly adapt to those labels invis­i­bly brand­ed on one’s back­side. I recall that it was dur­ing my first few months in the coun­try that some­one asked me a ques­tion in which they referred to me as a brown writer —a term I was unfa­mil­iar with at the time — and it was only after I asked for fur­ther expla­na­tion dur­ing which the same per­son stam­mered and fum­bled to present me with an ade­quate answer that I final­ly under­stood it to be a term direct­ed at writ­ers who did not belong to the white or black race. I admit I was tak­en aback at first, but then I too grad­u­al­ly came round to accept the label as nor­mal and life moved on, as all mat­ters do, in the Unit­ed States.

I have found that obe­di­ence and con­for­mi­ty in the Unit­ed States are not strict­ly enforced or heav­i­ly guard­ed by armed sol­diers or pris­ons, instead they present as a whis­per, a sound vibra­tion that crash­es into your con­scious­ness where they trans­form into ants that pro­ceed to slow­ly and grad­u­al­ly eat away at your insides until they ulti­mate­ly deform you after which they pro­ceed to build you back up and mold you into what the sys­tem deter­mines what you should become.

Even­tu­al­ly, I began to intro­duce myself as a brown writer, to dis­cuss the col­lec­tive of Brown Writ­ers and to pep­per my speech­es with the exact labels I had balked at receiv­ing upon my arrival to the coun­try. In the US, I have, alham­dulilah, become a writer who is Brown, Mus­lim, Arab, Arab Amer­i­can, North African, and occa­sion­al­ly African. And, thank the Lord, I con­tin­ue to amass titles and iden­ti­ties for they are the keys to grants, jobs, edu­ca­tion and life. Yes. There it is, the deceit, yet again, only this time it appears to face a new kind of fear.

 


 

Besides, who are you?  Do you deny that you are a brown writer? Do you deny your eth­nic ori­gins? And why do you crit­i­cize Arab Amer­i­cans? Are you ashamed of your tribe? How ungrate­ful of you. How­ev­er, if you do not iden­ti­fy as Arab, then why speak for them? If you do not iden­ti­fy as queer, then why dis­cuss anal fuck­ing? You have no right to that con­ver­sa­tion. Except of course you do because free­dom of expres­sion is after all guar­an­teed for all. How­ev­er, if you do choose to talk about some­thing like your def­er­ence to con­sumers of fisikh (a cer­tain type of fish in Egypt) for exam­ple, then you bet­ter make sure you actu­al­ly eat them your­self or else it would seem that you are steal­ing some­one else’s voice and appro­pri­at­ing their space. And what about res­i­den­cy papers and a work per­mit? Not until you prove you can indeed assim­i­late by ced­ing that you are a brown writer, an Arab, a Mus­lim, she/them/he/her. Lis­ten to me, you sons of bitch­es, I was breast­fed on trick­ery with mama’s milk, noth­ing is sim­pler than for me to lie my way through your stip­u­la­tions and conditions.

 


 

The first time I used the Inter­net, I was twelve years old. In Sep­tem­ber I turned 36. Last year, for the first time, I became afraid of the Inter­net. More than once, I caught myself post­ing on Face­book or Twit­ter, only to return to my posts days, some­times hours lat­er, to delete or hide them in the archives. Although what I write does not touch upon pol­i­tics, reli­gion, or any of the pro­hi­bi­tions, yet fear, the kind of which I have not expe­ri­enced until now, over­whelms me and com­pels me to erase what I’ve written.

The fact that I nev­er did this when I was liv­ing in Egypt scares me. It fright­ens me even more that I don’t know the source of my fear, its cause or where it comes from. In Egypt, the sources of ter­ror were known and one was cog­nizant of the lim­its of their reach and there­by they could be circumvented.

How­ev­er, in exile, fear springs from with­in; from the tem­po­rary iden­ti­ty papers that they give you, from the invis­i­ble shift­ing land under your feet, from your alien­ation, not only from the place and the social and cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment in which you grew up, but from your estrange­ment from the self you spent a life­time build­ing and now bare­ly recognize.

I glance behind me and see my tracks, but can­not see me.

 

Illus­tra­tion Hamid Sulaiman.

 

Forced migra­tion is like an axe that inces­sant­ly hacks away at a writer’s work and lit­er­ary style. In my ear­ly days, my opti­mism lev­el was almost sky-high. I thought of immi­gra­tion as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for a new begin­ning, and who among us does not like new begin­nings? Unbe­knownst to me that it would instead prove to be the start of my “great wan­der.

The more one famil­iar­izes one­self with the process­es and ways that cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions in the coun­try of exile oper­ate, the more one real­izes the impos­si­bil­i­ty of start­ing over, of repro­duc­ing one­self anew as well as the impos­si­bil­i­ty of reclaim­ing the old self. And thus began my steep descent into the depths of a labyrinth in which I felt like some­one had stripped me of own­er­ship of my lan­guage and erased the his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion and the geo­graph­i­cal con­text from which my knowl­edge derives its strength. It’s when life’s neces­si­ties present them­selves that the chasm fur­ther deep­ens for a writer in search of a new voice and yet is oblig­ed to prac­tice with­in a cul­tur­al machine that pro­vides mar­gin­al spaces for immi­grants to exist, there­by push­ing every­one to com­pete with oth­er for­eign writ­ers like them­selves over what lit­tle scraps they can secure.

Under such cir­cum­stances, exiled writ­ers are wary of rebelling against the sys­tem, stray­ing from the con­ven­tions of prop­er writ­ing, or even throw­ing in the tow­el alto­geth­er for fear of los­ing their only source of income, forced to join the crowds of oth­er immi­grants scram­bling to find work. Many a time I’ve asked myself why I cling to my pro­fes­sion after all the heartache it has brought me. I sur­mise I’d make more in a month work­ing as an Uber dri­ver or super­mar­ket employ­ee than I’d make in a life­time of writ­ing before sober­ing to ask myself: What after eight hours of phys­i­cal work a day and sched­uled vis­its to a psy­chi­a­trist to numb the inter­nal pain to pre­vent me from tak­ing my own life, would remain of me?

Psy­chi­a­try did not devel­op to deal with immi­grants and expa­tri­ates, and is there­fore inca­pable of bridg­ing the gap between immi­grants and the new soci­eties they find them­selves in, as it was nev­er designed at its core to ever acknowl­edge them.

Are you hav­ing pan­ic attacks? How do you feel about med­i­ta­tion? The sit­u­a­tion is pre­car­i­ous, so a vis­it to a doc­tor or a psy­chi­a­trist may save you from all your pain and exis­ten­tial questions.

I refuse to vis­it any med­ical pro­fes­sion­al unless phys­i­cal symp­toms appear on my body. As expa­tri­ates, it is my rea­son­ing that we must approach psy­chi­a­try with cau­tion. How­ev­er, this is not an invi­ta­tion for you to share in my con­tempt of the pro­fes­sion, but advice for you to exhib­it cau­tion should you decide to give it a go.

I believe that the ulti­mate goal of psy­chi­a­try, as a byprod­uct of moder­ni­ty, is to help indi­vid­u­als over­come their para­dox­es and men­tal anx­i­eties, avert­ing them from caus­ing harm to them­selves and oth­ers there­by allow­ing them to live in har­mo­ny with­in their surroundings.

It is worth­while not­ing that the accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge in psy­chi­a­try is based on decades of study and analy­sis of indi­vid­u­als born and raised with­in nation-states as well as insti­tu­tions of lib­er­al moder­ni­ty with the aim of help­ing these indi­vid­u­als to become active mem­bers of their com­mu­ni­ty. In essence, psy­chi­a­try did not devel­op to deal with immi­grants and expa­tri­ates, and is there­fore inca­pable of bridg­ing the gap between immi­grants and the new soci­eties they find them­selves in, as it was nev­er designed at its core to ever acknowl­edge them.

That said, it becomes less sur­pris­ing to learn that some of the con­se­quences to this over­sight in the sys­tem is the sharp rise in sui­cides among immi­grants when com­pared to the total pop­u­la­tion, close­ly fol­lowed by psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tion­al trau­ma. And sup­pos­ing that an immi­grant were able to secure the legal and pro­fes­sion­al sta­tus nec­es­sary to acquire health insur­ance, then begins the even more despi­ca­ble jour­ney of vis­its to psy­cho­an­a­lysts and psy­chi­a­trists, who not only can­not speak for­eign lan­guages but also have lit­tle, if any, under­stand­ing of their patients’ cul­ture and there­by serve no pur­pose but to deep­en the emo­tion­al rift lodged with­in the immigrant.

And yet, under the pres­sure of hope for sur­vival, the immi­grant, now turned patient, fum­bles under a for­eign lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate, striv­ing to rebuild a new self from the psychoanalyst’s sofa. I ask you, what could this health pro­fes­sion­al offer some­one like you who has lived through war, rebel­lion and prison when he knows noth­ing about them? Will he real­ly solve your prob­lems with his for­eign diag­nos­tics and treat­ment pro­to­cols? Do you hon­est­ly believe that the road to your sal­va­tion can only begin after you suc­cumb to mim­ic­k­ing the symp­toms of a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic diag­no­sis imposed upon you? Is the analyst’s role sim­ply to guide you into talk­ing your way to a more civ­i­lized, cul­tur­al­ly amenable self than the one you arrived with and which the new sys­tem expects you to shed and leave behind? Might not your belief in the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic process be a byprod­uct of express­ing your­self in a lan­guage oth­er than your moth­er tongue?

I recall an inci­dent with one psy­cho­an­a­lyst who launched into a long-wind­ed expla­na­tion on Post Trau­mat­ic Stress Dis­or­der (PTSD), sug­gest­ing cop­ing mech­a­nisms regur­gi­tat­ed in many a self-help book and the nov­els of Pao­lo Coel­ho. I sat, restrain­ing my frus­tra­tion, plas­ter­ing on my face a polite immi­grant smile before I was final­ly able to thank him for his tru­ly enlight­en­ing speech but with­out fail­ing to explain in return that indeed the oper­a­tive words in his diag­no­sis of my con­di­tion were “Post Trau­mat­ic,” and there­fore I promised that as soon as I got over my trau­ma, I would return to him for ther­a­py. What dum­b­ass psy­cho­an­a­lysts like him fail to grasp is that an immi­grant exists in per­pet­u­al trau­ma; every day in exile is one kind, your assistant’s slow drawn out sen­tences she uses to address us when book­ing our ses­sions is anoth­er one, sit­ting oppo­site you explain­ing myself in a for­eign lan­guage is the ulti­mate per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of trau­ma. And the insis­tence of West­ern psy­cho­analy­sis to imple­ment the PTSD pro­to­col is biggest proof of its fecun­di­ty, arro­gance and pre­sump­tu­ous­ness to view their coun­try as a par­adise and the immi­grant as a vic­tim who needs to be healed, cul­tured, tamed, before he is wor­thy to join the ranks of oth­er cit­i­zens who enjoy the ben­e­fits of that paradise.

But let’s assume, on the odd chance this ther­a­peu­tic method works and you do heal inter­nal­ly, enough for you to reach a point where you are able to con­vince your­self that you do belong in this new soci­ety, no dif­fer­ent from every­one else. Who, pray tell, will bury the rot­ting corpse of the past lodged inside your ribcage?

 

“Tam­ing of the Immi­grant” orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Ara­bic in Aljumhuriya and was trans­lat­ed for TMR by Rana Asfour.

 

Arab AmericanArabicbrown writerEgyptexileexpatriatefearfinding refugeforced migrationMuslimNorth Africanpsychology of the refugee

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist (b. Mansoura, 1985) and criminal. Naji has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is the author of Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), The Use of Life (2014), and Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (2020). He has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award, a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and an Open Eye Award. He was recently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. Follow him on Twitter @AhmedNajiTW

Rana Asfour is a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at BookFabulous.com and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.