Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait

Mona Kareem on the Heaviness of Absence and Those We Leave Behind

Sitting on a green couch in what is now a bedbug-infested Brooklyn apartment, I suddenly realized that my flight to meet my family for the first time in five years was actually tonight, not tomorrow; 12:30 am, not 12:30 pm. I had planned to wake up early in the morning, make two cups of coffee, and pack a small bag with the few gifts I managed to buy last minute for my siblings. I thought I had more hours to sit with my heavy feeling, which I assumed to be a mix of excitement and longing, but which was rather a combination of wariness and fear, of things going wrong, of encounters no one can prepare for.

In front of the couch, there was a round coffee table, which I circled around in panic, not sure if I could make it to JFK on time, to Kiev on time, to Tbilisi on time. For months, my sister and I had saved and borrowed so we could have this one-week reunion trip in a country we knew nothing about. A few months after my arrival in the United States, the Kuwaitis had denied my application for passport renewal, subsequently making me an asylee. My family’s attempts to get US visas were repeatedly denied, so we began to make different plans. We called embassies every morning, in the United States and in Kuwait. I asked, “Do you accept a US refugee travel document? How long to issue a visa?” while they asked, “Do you accept a stateless travel document? How long to issue a visa?” The mutually closest country was Georgia, a place Arabs have come to discover in the past few years, this time not as conquerors, but as refugees in transit, hoping to infiltrate Europe from her eastern side.

I left Kuwait in August 2011, really the best time to leave Kuwait, when it was 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew I would be unlikely to return anytime soon. My dream of leaving the country was as old as my body. Fascinated with the possibility of other places, I was also dulled by my place of birth, but most of all I was tired of being stateless, tired of a state younger than my father telling me I didn’t belong or I wasn’t native enough. On airplanes, I never sleep, nor on buses; something about the presence of others unsettles my rest. I killed the hours making final touches on a translation project commissioned by a white woman who tried to not pay me since she was giving me “exposure to the American literary scene.” A white woman with barely any name, I should say. I began to take interest in my seat neighbors, a mother with three children, after hearing their Arabic. We asked each other the question we tend to ask before getting each other’s names. Her son, born in Bay Ridge, said, “We’re Palestinian.”

Arriving in Kiev, the Palestinians and I got thoroughly searched, the 12-year-old kid, slick again, making jokes about “Us,” that it’s only Us who are made to hold the lines back, who make the crowds huff in frustration. From me, the Ukrainians took small scissors and a tweezer my hairy eyebrows were in dire need of. I grew frustrated and sarcastic, answering every question with a question—I don’t know… because… you know… why… do I have to? These are the coping mechanisms I’ve acquired airport to airport, as a substitute to smiling at those who search and humiliate you. My attitude surprises them, often makes them resort to getting their own managers to deal with a woman who speaks like a bossy American but is not one. Today, like other days, I refused to answer why I was stateless or why I had this refugee travel document. I wore the fuck-it-up attitude and thought to myself, Even the Ukrainians. The year before, Russia had invaded Ukraine, so you’d think they would have had better shit to worry about. I asked that we take a picture together, the Palestinians and I. The mother volunteered as photographer, her kids and I posing and throwing hand signs we couldn’t decode.

My family is less experienced with airports, and the five of them plus my mother was a big task for my sister to manage. They arrived at the airport five hours ahead of the trip, unlike me. They were excited to see me but also to get the fuck out for a second. They fed their excitement with coffee and chocolate and unhealthy snacks. My father, disabled and constantly under threat of losing his job, decided to stay back with my brother. I felt as if my father was too terrified of such an encounter, of seeing me after so many years, or perhaps selflessly did not want to burden us with his mobility issues. He said, “Next time, inshallah,” and I nodded on the other end of the phone.

These are the coping mechanisms I’ve acquired airport to airport, as a substitute to smiling at those who search and humiliate you.

In Tbilisi, I arrived a day ahead, just in case, to double-check the place I’d rented, to double-check if I needed to arrange their transportation or buy groceries or a tea kettle. Little did I know that this Soviet country had nothing to do with English, and perhaps just a tiny bit more to do with Arabic. I relied on hand gestures and shoving the Google maps in someone’s face: “This how? This where?” My mother packed her clothes with my sisters’ and used her own bag to pack the essential ingredients for all my favorite dishes. Each day of that one week we spent in Tbilisi, my mother made a new meal for me. Sometimes I wondered if her cooking was ever any good or if she was slacking with age. As I finished my plate, she’d ask me what she should make tomorrow, and I would have to answer, to prove that I still remembered, that I was still longing for her food.

During our reunion, our week together but still not whole, my family recognized my loneliness and anxiety, what it had done to me, how it interrupted our time, how I could not sleep in their presence. I am the oldest daughter of seven, who, for a long time, slept on the same floor next to my siblings, and sometimes was the one brave enough to suggest that we stick close to each other, covered under one blanket, to watch the TV on mute past midnight, on a school night, as our parents slept. At the end of the trip, my brother addressed me: “Don’t let the foreigners have you forget yourself…. Always working, working, working….”

“What is Bidun?” is a question that I will always struggle to answer­—how to define someone by negation. Stateless persons and communities in the Gulf have varied stories and travels, but they were all made stateless by the violence of nation-state building. In the sixties, my illiterate grandfather was recruited by the British to work in the oil fields, before he was replaced by cheaper labor and found himself in the midst of urban life, making coffee and tea in the cafeterias of brand-new bureaucratic offices. Up until the second Gulf War, being Bidun was not so terrible. You had access to education, healthcare, employment, and “special passports,” basic rights that my father’s generation were the only ones to enjoy. After the war, the Bidun, as well as Palestinians and Iraqis, were considered the new enemy, called mercenaries and co-conspirators by the Kuwaiti state, and exiled en masse. Following the war, the numbers of Bidun in Kuwait dropped by half, from 250,000 to 125,000, in a country that, at the time, barely had a population of two million residents.

My generation was the one to grow up in an environment of fear and stigmatization, instructed to camouflage, to watch out for any words that might not sound authentic to Kuwait­. It was a taboo to speak of being Bidun, until we began to mobilize in 2011. For the past three decades, the Bidun have had their records falsified by the government, their tribal names taken off so as to erase their lineage and connections, their documents labelled “special” and printed on brightly colored, poor-quality paper, so when you pull out your special ID, you are easily identifiable by whatever state-eye is watching you. We have been systematically denied access to higher education, healthcare, formal employment, marriage contracts, and legal representation, to name a few prohibitions. The so-called Article 17 passport, the special travel document needed by Bidun to cross borders, is granted on a case-by-case basis, to perform hajj or to seek treatment abroad. Like many Arabs, the Bidun have had to get creative with passports and visas, in hopes of reaching Western heavens. On the biographical page of the passport, the nationality category reads Undefined. Today, the largest groups of Bidun abroad are located in Canada and the UK. The stories of cousins, neighbors, friends imprisoned for attempting to cross borders have become the norm in Georgia, Morocco, Turkey, even Mexico; we are deported back to Kuwait, then locked up for illegal entry or exit.

My dreams of leaving Kuwait intensified after I heard of an uncle who made it to Denmark, after having survived Kuwaiti torture basements set up in the days following the Gulf War. He was exiled to what soon became Iraq-under-sanctions, and years later made his way to Copenhagen through a miraculous journey only Iraqis know how to take. I located Denmark on the map, at the very northern tip of the planet, where the distance felt exciting and impossible. I told my siblings about the plan, told them that over there, you can call 911 on your parents when they beat you, and that was all they needed to hear to buy in. In the early 2000s, the government had allowed a black market of passports and immigration to flourish. Advertisements in newspapers announced, “Eritrean, Albanian, Dominican, Bolivian passports for sale. Clean and official. Call 765–4321.” Next to these were the immigration ads announcing, “We help you get to Australia: free education, free healthcare—start a new life today!” or “Come to Canada, your new home.” They used all the key words we were looking for—basic rights and a home. Everything seemed one phone call away. There were white people with fake offices offering consultations for $150 per visit. There was no way we would suspect a white man; according to the movies, they’re the saviors, and we wanted to be saved. Two of them sat behind a big desk, whispering to each other like our life depended on it. It took three consultations to arrive at the final determination: “You we might take, but your family: not possible.” My family gave up on the prospects of immigration, but I never did. Many years after, I left Kuwait on a student visa, having been accepted into a graduate program in upstate New York.

My mother remembers my departure in slow motion, full of details. I remember it in bullet points, an abrupt summary. She remembers the wet hugs, the turn-backs after each gate; she remembers who was there and who wasn’t. She had all the time to dwell on the memories; she has mastered the role of the left-behind. It is as if the pain itself is all we have to hold onto after a loved one has gone; without it, you cannot summon them into your life, across the vastness of place and time. Every phone call, she would say, “You left me like my mother left me before; now I know what the pain feels like from both sides.”

What my mother fails to mention is how her first loss occurred, a loss that formed my earliest childhood memories: when her family was forced to pack their homes on top of cars and then were left at the border, deported to southern Iraq. Exiled. I remember their faces, the same sweaty hugs I took away with me to New York, the women wailing, the men silent, locked out of an entire life. They took the keys as souvenirs and left the doors open behind. I kept on interrupting their wailing, asked my mother why everyone was crying— weren’t they coming back? She said Yes, they will. My aunt said Yes, we will, but I never did see them again. I was probably five years old, and I had a feeling it was a lie, but I was obligated to believe what was offered. I kept on believing it until I forgot about believing it. My mother has continued to eulogize that departure. Every love song is an ode to her family, to her mother, who was a tough woman yet her only friend. I hid that memory in the darkest basement of my consciousness. Whenever it comes to mind, it appears only as a picture: two crying faces, my mother and her sister, the false assurances. I can’t allow myself to call it what it is, a family broken into two halves—those who left and those left behind.

I thought of her as a masochist, constantly poking at the wound.

The scene of car fleets driven away recurred for three years following the Gulf War. The neighbors would step outside, wave away, borrow new goodbyes to commemorate their old ones. I remember the moments after they left and my mother walked back into her family’s empty house to continue her goodbyes. She did not refrain from wailing and crying. She was not worried about frightening us; we were her kids, we were her only witnesses. We cried anytime she cried, as we asked her why she was crying. From room to room, she said her goodbyes. I had never seen their home empty, of people or things. My grandfather wasn’t there taking another nap, my grandmother wasn’t sweating and sipping on her tea, my uncle and his two wives weren’t plotting against each other, their kids weren’t playing or feuding, the kitchen was empty of all noise and scents. We were the left-behind, our grief filling in for the absent ones.

For years, we heard nothing of my mother’s family. The United States, Kuwait, and their allies had enforced sanctions on Iraq. Iraqis were dying of starvation and lack of medication without anyone to witness it. Iraq became a metaphor for them; anything happening there was happening to them. Before home video cameras started to make their way in, they sent us cassette tapes of their voices, delivered by someone heading to Jordan who would then mail them to Kuwait. “Salam. This is Najat, your sister. How are you, my love? How are you all? Inshallah, you are in good health,” the voice would say and quickly break into tears. “How is x? How is y? My mother is good—we are all good—we just miss you.” The lies fill the empty spaces in the transcript. My mother would listen to these cassettes repeatedly, whenever she needed a cry. I thought of her as a masochist, constantly poking at the wound. Then the VHS tapes would arrive, and—here they are, the Iraqi skeletons, always dressed in black, nervous in front of the camera. They look into the void and say their salutes and ask about each one they remember, make a casual statement about their well-being, then break into tears, look away from the camera, look down, hide their eyes, their faces. Years later, when videos of American hostages came on TV, I had an unnerving feeling that they resembled people I had seen before. At the receiving end of the VHS tapes, we talked back to the TV screen: when a new face appeared, we said their name out loud, asserting we still remembered; we cried as they cried, or before. We viewed them through our sadness; we saw them get older, get thinner, lose a spark. We cried against the time wasted away. We commemorated them, we commemorated us together, we commemorated a longing unrealized.

In Tbilisi, my siblings treated the reunion trip as a vacation. I can’t blame them; most had never before left Kuwait. Every morning, we woke up, ate breakfast, drank instant coffee or Lipton tea, took turns for the shower, then headed out to the old city with no specific destination. Coming from the flaming oil cities, strolling is not a part of the culture; only the poorest among us would dare walk in the dry heat. The streets of Tbilisi were cool, with long boulevards and tunneled metro stations, the cars not so many as to contaminate the air. We gave Georgian food a try, but it felt too basic—not enough meat or spices. We stuck with the Arab and Indian restaurants, always comparing the alterations between home and there. We visited the Narikala Fortress, took the Aerial Tramway, and spent nights on the cliff of a hill overlooking an artificial lake, or on the balcony of the rental apartment.

In the hours we spent together at home, my siblings would gather around me and my mother. Rarely did I speak about my life in the United States. We seemed to share a belief that I was the one gone and missing, and therefore all the stories revolved around what had happened while I was not home. They were about the cousins who had gotten married, who had divorced, and how many babies in the family would grow up not knowing of my existence. There were also my high school friends who would visit my mother occasionally and ask her about me. Unlike my mother—a “people person,” as they say—I spent my first years in exile attempting to bury the past. I had a theory that the past would only burden me, and that there was barely enough space to carry along the absent presence of my family. I let my ex-lovers and my friends drop one by one, each of us exhausted by time difference and the violent question of my possible return. They struggled to let go of me, and so I wanted to force them to by letting go of them myself.

My presence filled in for her absent mother, and most of all, I was a witness to all her torments and joys.

In our conversations and reminiscing in Tbilisi, I realized how my life in Kuwait accumulated dust or, as I wrote once in a poem, how I was “standing in the middle like a statue.” I did not know how to mend that past seamlessly with the present, how to allow it to continue into my exile while simultaneously shielding it from any alterations. I realize that this notion, this rupture of time-place-memory-language, is a shared art among immigrants, who cannot simply carry on across geography. They resurrect themselves, shed their tongues, sometimes even assemble whole new families, drip new blood. Yet it was clear to me that my family viewed my exile as something temporary. They needed to believe such a lie, to imagine a return in the far future. My siblings were not as altered by my absence as my mother was. They have each other, after all; they have their friends and youth and futures ahead.

But my mother, a carpenter of the past, often describes my absence as an amputation. I was her first child, her first everything. My presence filled in for her absent mother, and most of all, I was a witness to all her torments and joys. My deep love for my mother was essential to her survival, a bulwark against her loss of family, and against my father. She believed that my presence in the family balanced out the power relations with my father, who’s easily patriarchal and domineering, more so with her than with us. And now, to her, I am everything that she wanted but was not allowed to be—educated, financially independent, not owned by a man. In Tbilisi, my mother and I spoke for the first time about the scene of her family’s expulsion. I told the story very quickly, in the manner of bullet points, as I seem to do with painful memories, and felt as if I had caught a fly in the air. Gotcha, I seemed to say. After all these years, I was finally able to catch it and lay it on the table before my mother, to ask: Can we talk about this?

It is not like my mother ever stopped talking about her family’s departure, their absence. She always did. But never about the day they left, the specifics of it. There were details she had buried away, like the fact that she took us and her two sisters to take a picture at the studio the night before they left, or the fact that I was there and never forgot. I told her how, after a couple of years in New York, that scene resurfaced, how I realized that I am not exceptional in my family separation—rather, I am only keeping a tradition. We talked for hours about all the years following the Gulf War, about all the dead whose funerals she could not attend, about how the mass deportations of the Bidun made her think that her pain was not singular, that it was nothing but a political eventuality, an unfortunate historical event. Once we think otherwise, we might become angry, and anger is not something the fearful can afford.

Three years after my arrival in my new home, I was finally given an asylum interview. Still ignorant of US geography, or perhaps just terrified of being tricked by bad fate, I slept at a motel room near the immigration office, instead of taking an early bus from Port Authority to this New Jersey town only thirty minutes away. A city kid, I walked from the motel to the immigration office, on the verge of a highway, hoping for a cup of coffee somewhere before meeting the person who was to decide my life and a lawyer whom I’d only met over the phone. Before reaching the gate, you first cross a vast parking lot, too spacious for the small number of employees and applicants accommodated. The entrance corridor is all clean and sparkling, thanks to some ghost worker, the lights white and strong, as if to expose our truths. I stepped off the elevator, already scared that I might’ve fucked up, forgot some paper, skipped some step or instruction. The policeman searched all of us, ready to hold us captives, spoke to us in very slow English: You, leave, phone, in, box, understand? Chewing away on his gum.

We found ourselves in an island of chairs surrounded by offices and partitions. None of the glass windows were open to reveal something of what awaited us on the other side. I found out that an old Syrian man and myself were the only ones there that day who were not Egyptian Copts. My lawyer, too, was an Egyptian Copt­—New Jersey being, after all, a suburb of Cairo.

During the two hours of waiting, I rehearsed my life in my head, over and over, as if it were somebody else’s, like I might fuck up and mix mine with that of the person next to me. We stank of fear, doubt, and wariness. I glanced at the portrait of Barack Obama every now and then, besieged by Italian and Irish security officers. I still remember the face of my asylum officer, her very long blondish hair, her aesthetic that of a suburban woman stuck in the 1980s, with an office full of nativity sets. Whether these were meant to comfort the Copts or intimidate the Muzlimz, I couldn’t tell. Two hours of questions and answers went by, with her mostly typing on the old computer. I did not want to use the bathroom there. After the interview, I got my phone back, pulled a cigarette out while on the elevator back to planet Earth, and smoked with fingers shaking, making my way across the postindustrial desert.

As an asylee, I had to train myself to anticipate wisely, to never let my hopes rule over me—when opening the mail, when calling the asylum office, when having to explain why I was in this situation. At every attempt, my explanation got shorter. Omitting the details requires repression, but it can also spare you the trouble of becoming a mere subject for the curious and concerned. Someone once suggested that we petition a congressman for help. Hoping to encourage me, he said, “One time, we needed to have a tree removed from the street corner and no one was responding to our request, so we went to the congressman’s office, and there were enough of us, so finally he had them remove the tree….”

Before the interview, I changed my address seven times. My first month in upstate New York, the rural town where I lived alongside Kurdish, Iraqi, and Bosnian refugees was hit by Tropical Storm Lee. Luckily, I did not have much to lose at the time. From my window, I watched wooden homes drifting with the river stream, probably toward the Atlantic Ocean, where all things go to die. I kept on moving, in hopes of finding a place that I might populate with chairs, poems, and photographs. With every move, I had to submit a new “change of address” form to the asylum office, and with every update, I was committing an act of anticipation, to be granted asylum.

An asylum letter always contains rejection—even after its impossible arrival—of your past life, of your experiences and expectations, of whatever had occurred on your way to the asylum center. I passed time reading about asylum laws, browsing through hundreds of inquiries on online forums written by displaced users, confused between application numbers and forty-plus minutes of holding on the line to be given explanations in an English we don’t know. I spent my anxious nights reading about the programs made to help “asylees and other special populations restart their lives in the United States.” I understood that I was expected to become unrelated to my past being. My life was “lagging” for four years in America, until it was finally allowed to restart when the asylum acceptance letter arrived in the mail.

Until that letter came in, I felt as if stuck in the transit space of an airport or a hospital emergency room. Though the body is there, arrival is neither resolved nor completed, because one is never at a destination. Yes, you might one day arrive, but for now you are merely sitting there, on a cold wooden bench, trying to do life until enough waiting has passed, until your number comes up and it tells you to turn in your body to them, to reboot, to restart where you left off.

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The Common Issue 22

This essay was published in Issue 22 of The Common under the title “Mapping Exile.”

Mona Kareem
Mona Kareem
Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections, and is the translator of Ashraf Fayadh, Octavia Butler, and Ra'ad Abdulqadir, among others.





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