Oral History — November 14, 2017, 4:03 pm

Leaving Home

“I knew that if I had a relationship or became really close to a girl, my family would lock me up.”

The storage room in Amman, Jordan, where Fatima lived. Photograph by the author

From a conversation with a twenty-five-year-old Baghdadi refugee named Fatima, which took place in the storage room on the rooftop of a building in Amman, Jordan, where she was residing. Fatima moved to Jordan with her family in 2012, when her father began receiving threats. In 2014, she registered as a refugee with UNHCR, which referred her for resettlement to the United States earlier this year. Her interview with US Citizenship and Immigration Services was scheduled for February but was canceled following President Donald Trump’s first executive order barring entry to the United States for citizens of seven predominately Muslim nations, including Iraq, and halting admissions for all refugees. In July, after months of delays, USCIS began rescheduling interviews in Amman. Fatima is stuck in the backlog.

Since I was young, I’ve never felt safe with boys. I never had any relations with them, and when I got older, when I was a teenager, my friends would say to me, “I’ve got a boyfriend. Why don’t you have one?” I thought there was something wrong with me. My family and society all say it’s wrong, that how I feel is a sin, a crime. I tried to change my thinking, but my thinking wouldn’t change—this is something inside me. When I was nineteen or twenty I became sure that I couldn’t think about boys. I wished I could have a close friend who understood me, and I could tell her how I feel.

Then I saw my neighbor Mouna.

I knew that if I had a relationship or became really close to a girl, my family would lock me up, at the very least. They’d put me somewhere I couldn’t leave and tell me I had to get married.

My brother and I needed to finish our studies, so we were living in Jordan, but my parents went back to Iraq because my married sisters were there. When my brother went to visit Iraq, I’d stay with Mouna and her mom and dad. I felt like they were my family here. I didn’t have friends. They were everything—and Mouna was my everything.

One day Mouna came to visit me. We were playing with some puppies, and I was complaining about her resettling to America to join her brother, who was living in Kentucky. She was hugging me, and my brother opened the door and saw. He closed the door and got really upset. I went straight to my brother and told him, “Don’t get upset. We girls are different from boys. I was just telling her about my problems, you know, I’m not feeling well.” He just said, “Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me.”

He’s my younger brother, but you must know how Arab society is—it favors boys. He got mad, and he was sure something strange was going on. So he called Mama in Iraq. My mom told him, “Don’t let her go to Mouna’s house.” My family tried to bring me back to Iraq. They told me to just live normally, get married like my sisters and live normally. But how can I live if my family doesn’t accept me? They feel like it’s a shame for me to live. They think that they should force me to get married. I didn’t want to. They had always forced everything on me: Cover your hair. Don’t be alone. Take your brother with you. I said okay to everything because if I said no, the problem would get bigger.

My dad came to Jordan, took my phone, and said, “Tomorrow, I’m having visitors.” The next day, three guys came to our house. My father asked me to serve the coffee. Usually, my brother does that, not me, so I felt something really serious was happening. But I thought, I will try to understand my father. One of the guys introduced his friend, and said, “It’s a pleasure that he would ask your father about having an engagement with you.” I think he was forty, forty-three, something like that, and he has a family—he has children, he’s married. His friend told me that he and his wife were not understanding each other or something. I don’t know, I didn’t care. I told him that I’m not going to marry someone already married with a family and double my age. My father was in shock. In front of his friends, I said to him, “With all my respect for you, respect my opinion like how I respect you. I don’t want it.”

So I left. My dad came after me and told me to go to the bathroom. I heard him say, “I’ll come with her tomorrow to visit you.” When they left, he came into the bathroom. He was super nervous and he said, “You don’t know how to respect people, and you don’t know how to respect your father.” I told him, “Dad, please, understand me. I promise you I’m going to do that but not now and not this guy.” So he hit me. And then he put me in the bathroom for the next day. I was stuck in the bathroom, my legs and my hands tied up with cables.

The next day, he told me, “Yalla, it’s time to go to these people.” He tried to get me out, but I was screaming, and I knew what would happen: he might give me to them. I tried to make noise, and he tried to take me but couldn’t, so he put me in the bathroom again. Suddenly, I felt something on my back, like a fire on my back. It was a barbecue stick. I smelled a really bad smell, and I couldn’t feel whether I was conscious or unconscious. And I told him, “Just tell me what you want. You might convince me if you talk to me, but not this way.” He told me, “I’m going to get you back to Iraq with me. Because you are so stubborn and you don’t listen to me. And I just feel shame about the way you are.”

I had long hair, and he cut my hair in front of the mirror. He didn’t cut it one time. He cut it in different ways, yani. Every hour, he’d come and take some of my hair, and make me look in the mirror, to make me ugly. He shaved my hair in different ways. So I saw myself in different shapes, and I hated myself. And then he just shaved it all.

He saw that I have a tattoo on my shoulder. In Chinese it says mouna is my soul mate. He said, “I’m going to burn your tattoo.” I thought, This time I’m going to die. I knew what he was thinking about the tattoo. I think he was in the kitchen, and I said to myself, let’s run to the door and just run away. I got out of the bathroom and ran to the door. I saw the keys there—my brother had left them—and I took the keys, opened the door, and ran. He was running after me. I just ran.

It’s been one year and three months since the incident with my father. I had my prescreening interview with the IOM on January 3. They called me a week later and told me about the US government interview, on February 28. I was so excited after this long wait and really tough process. But when I heard the news, the ban and the decision about refugees . . . I don’t want to think about it.

I stay here, I don’t move, I don’t go out, I don’t walk around. When there’s heavy rain and it’s windy, I can’t sleep at night. It’s cold, and I’ve been sick for days. The wood of the bed is really old, and bedbugs attack me all over my body and my face. And then I just want to not sleep at night. I don’t want to see the light. I don’t want to feel like there is movement of people around me. People go to work and people go to school, people go to university. I just wake up at night, and it’s quiet.

It’s been years, months, and then you know, whenever they give you hope, tell you that you have an interview, you have to wait for I don’t know how long. They give me hope, and then I feel hopeless again.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

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