A protest in Downtown Minneapolis against President Trump's immigration executive order, the Muslim ban, and border wall. January 31, 2017. Picture by Tony Webster / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Some rights reserved. In the wake of the travel ban introduced by the Trump administration in January 2017, we read a lot about the affected people: those with visas and tickets barred from flight in airports, those in planes thousands of feet above the ground when the order was signed and got off unaware, finding themselves in detention, including the elderly on wheelchairs, seven-year-olds in handcuffs, so on and so forth.
There is another portion of the affected whose stories have gone mostly unnoticed: hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the listed countries who were not travelling or expecting travelers. They were living their lives, and one day, due to the stroke of a pen, they were relegated to second-degree immigrants. They were Kafkaesquely punished without having ever been accused of a crime, let alone committing one. Many of those people went through enormous psychological pressure. Some left the country, many stayed but developed a starkly different idea of America.
Those stories are not dramatic enough to be widely reported by the media. Yet, like other cases of flagrant injustice, they are worth being told.
This is one of them.
I had lived in three continents and a handful of cities before, and never had this feeling in any other place.
I got on the plane at Tehran IKA airport in April 2016, and after a brief stop in Dubai, arrived at JFK about twenty hours later. Within a week, I decided that New York City is a place I could consider home, at least for the foreseeable future. I had lived in three continents and a handful of cities before, and never had this feeling in any other place.
Based on my previous experiences, nine months is average time for settling in a new country, sorting out documents, learning the lay of the land, finding your local bars and restaurants, striking up friendships. If making the decision to stay somewhere equals the implantation of an embryo, let’s call the following nine months the gestation period. Then you can give birth to the idea of stay, fulfil and materialize it. You can think of finding a job, a partner, a future.
Nine months after my arrival, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the US. Within the first ten days of his presidency, he targeted me, my people, for being born in Iran. Right at the end of the gestation period of my decision to adopt America as home. It was time for the baby to come out into this world. And it did.
It came out stillborn.
This is my first memory of New York City: as the Boeing 707 lowered altitude and hovered over JFK airport, I looked out the window and spotted the spire of The Empire State, and the Wall Street skyscrapers on the horizon. I reclined back in my seat, and a second later, realized how strange that experience was.
I had never visited New York City before, yet that bright morning I could distinguish the buildings on the landscape from far up in the air, to spot the monuments from the sky. Knowing the map of a city before exploring it has never been among my skills.
The next day, my friend and I got on our bikes and rode from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In Manhattan, the feeling of familiarity struck again: I roughly knew how to get to Central Park, where Harlem is, how avenues and streets are laid out.
I have spent a good portion of my life reading novels, and a lot of them were set in New York City. Wandering around the streets of Manhattan that day, I began to understand what New York novels had done to my head: sneakily and stealthily, they had incised a map of the city on the tissue of my brain, inculcated a knowledge of its urban space I never knew that I had.
That’s what novels do. They appear quiet and modest, yet no artefact is more ambitious than a novel. Like shrewd politicians, novels alter the power dynamic in our brains, and teach us a lot without posing as teachers.
That day, I was not visiting New York City. I was revisiting it, without ever being a visitor before.
There is actually a word for first time re-visitors: pilgrims. Pilgrims don’t visit holy sites to explore. The colonialist excitement of venturing onto an unknown land belongs to travelers, tourists, explorers. Pilgrims come to the site with a considerable foreknowledge. They come to see how things connote, not to discover what they are.
For bookworms and film-buffs, New York City is a massive pilgrimage site. A large number of literary masterpieces have risen out of this city, and served as scripture to people who deem the written word sacred. I consider myself among them, which means this city to me is more a written structure than a physical one.
There is actually a word for first time re-visitors: pilgrims.
That said, everyday life in New York City is the opposite of artistic tranquility. It is all about rushing around in a gigantic concrete beehive. Pause in midtown Manhattan for a second and watch the crowd. It is as if all those people in suite stride on the wall of a whirlpool, knowing that the second they cease to move they drown. Had it not been for the written layer, New York City would have been a horror show of glitz and glint.
The written city is always there to strike the balance: along these very streets Paul Auster’s Peter Stillman in ‘City of Glass’ walked religiously to inscribe ‘THE TOWER OF BABEL’ upon the urban layout, on these very streets Holden Caulfield journeyed to induce a modicum of meaning and relevance into his life and failed miserably, these were the streets onto which E.L. Doctorow deployed that dizzying army of fictional and real characters in ‘Ragtime’, on these streets Michael Chabon’s Joe Kavalier conjured up his spectacular superheroes and villains. ‘The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time’, writes Scott Fitzgerald in ‘Great Gatsby’. He is right: New York City is not so much a physical thing as it is a written one, and no two encounters with a written page are the same.
On the eve of 9 Nov 2016, upon the triumph of Donald Trump, I left a stunned, heartbroken group of fellow NYU writers in Lower East Side and hit the streets of Manhattan at 3 am. Outside, on 1st and 2nd avenues, nothing moved. Cars and crowds seemed to have abandoned the streets. Here and there I ran into cohorts of people, all pale and ruined, glued to their phone screens, struggling to digest the news. I wandered around, wondering what to make of what had happened, and how it would affect my life.
Near Washington Square, I saw a scene that triggered the answer: a few young women had brought a small globe to the sidewalk and set it on fire. They were sitting around it, weeping and singing a song about the end of the world. I stood there and watched a long time. Before the performance was over, I knew that I wanted to be a witness.
As an outsider, I could see things insiders tend to miss. I happened to be here the moment the mightiest empire in the history of the planet shot itself in the foot. Not many people have ever been granted this chance. I could watch the unfolding chaos from a distance, which would enable me to record it better than many others.
As an outsider, I could see things insiders tend to miss.
I thought of a phrase that would capture the mood of the country, and failed to come up with one, until I read Jonathan Lethem’s excellent essay, ‘Theatre of Injury’. That phrase says it all. No wonder Lethem heard it from a couple of kids hopping up and down on a trampoline: the spirit of time so often speaks through the innocent.
‘I write out of disarray,’ Lethem begins the piece, ‘from a field of compatriots in disarray’. I was also in ‘theatre of injury’, in the same auditorium with Lethem, dealing with the same disarray. Lethem and many other Americans are on the stage, battling over the soul of their nation. As a newcomer, I considered myself a spectator, sitting on a seat, watching the show, wide-eyed and rapt. I would cry and cheer for the ones I deem on the side of good, get emotional and frustrated, and record what I see as a witness.
The theatre of injury is no fun to watch, especially when one side is so hell-bent on being vicious. But it was a historic play. I was glad to have gotten hold of the ticket.
on 27 January 2017, Donald Trump signed an executive order that banned residents of seven Muslim majority countries from entering the US. He updated the order on March 6th, exempting Iraqi citizens, visa and green card holders, but the rest remained pretty much the same. The order is up in the air now, but its enormous impact is yet to fizzle out.
Being a citizen of one of those banned countries means many things in the new America, one of which is that the luxury of sitting in the audience in ‘theatre of injury’ is over. In a creepily Brechtian moment, the leader of the villains on the stage abruptly turned to the audience, spotted the ones that carry the wrong passports, and dragged them all onto the stage. The battle was coming to a head, and his side needed a replenishment of scapegoats.
since the execution of the first order, I have been showered by support and kindness from friends and colleagues. I participated in demonstrations, and was deeply heartened by massive crowds. But I am far from hopeful, or optimistic for that matter.
I grew up in Middle East, and like my other region-fellows, I had to learn certain things.
There is nothing new or surprising about being banished from a country at somebody’s whim.
First, we learn to lose. Loss is an inextricable part of who we are. So often we spend years setting up a life, then a bomb lands and demolishes our shelter, or a dictator decides he no longer wants us around. So many of us have been run to ruin and rose from the ashes, more than once. There is nothing new or surprising about being banished from a country at somebody’s whim.
Second, most of us are immune to vacuous optimism. Numerous times we rose to improve upon reality, fought hard, lost lives, fell to the ground, picked ourselves up, fought again, fell again, fell harder. We know how hard it is to roll back a political calamity, to make up for a collective folly. We hold no illusions about fight for change: it is bound to be painfully slow and incremental, and things often get way worse before getting any better.
Third, we are acutely aware what it means to be hated as a person, as a community, as a country. We feel the weight of spiteful gazes, notice the glint of distrustful eyes. We learn to see through the kindness that guises dislike, the cordiality that conceals fear. When the news comes out, we read between the lines before the actual lines. Take this executive order: as an Iranian, the first thing I noticed was that Iran is the only banned country US hasn’t bombed, and Trump administration is packed with professional Iran-haters. That thought alone sends shivers down my spine.
I hope I am wrong, but I am drawing experiences from life. This is going to be a long and nasty fight, and many of us, citizens of the banned countries, are already exhausted.
The colorful tale of immigration to New York City is delivered stillborn, the trace of Donald Trump’s fingers around its neck. I should’ve known better, having claimed immunity to vacuous optimism. I don’t know what the next scene of this ‘theatre of injury’ would be, but I am certain about one thing: As long as Donald Trump is at helm, every day I will be thinking of jumping off this ship, before getting pushed overboard. As long as he is in office, I cannot think of America as home.