Novelist Nadifa Mohamed on the Impact of Trump’s Muslim Ban
Life in an Ever-Growing Climate of Fear, Mistrust, and Uncertainty
Novelist Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, Somalia and moved to Britain at the age of five. She is a graduate of Oxford and the author of two books, Black Mamba Boy, and Orchard of Lost Souls, the latter of which is set in Somalia on the cusp of a civil war. We asked Mohamed how Trump’s Muslim immigration ban might effect her, and its broader significance to lives around the world.
How has the executive order effected you, and how do you feel?
It’s hard to tell yet how it will effect me, there has been so much confusion that I’m not clear whether I am banned or not. It was Mo Farah’s statement that he was unable to return to his home in Oregon, because he was born in Mogadishu, that made me realize that, as I was born in Somalia, I would be unwelcome too. It seems as if there has been a deal struck today between the British and American governments to exclude British passport holders with dual nationality from the ban, but everything is still very uncertain. It has made me wary of traveling to the US, to be honest, and it’s pretty sad as this time last year I was about to go to New York to interview Toni Morrison, and I was so immersed in African-American literature and life.
So in the past, if you held a Somali passport, give me an idea of how one would get into the United States on a visit.
I have never tried to get into the US with a Somali passport, and I actually don’t even have Somali citizenship. I am entitled to a Somaliland passport but as it is an unrecognized country I think there are only about two countries that accept it as a valid traveling document. For Somalis to legally and easily travel they need a foreign passport, that is why so many of them try the illegal route across the Sahara and Mediterranean. The US is particularly difficult to enter and Somali refugees in Kenyan camps are put through strenuous, lengthy checks lasting many years before they are cleared for resettlement in America.
Have any of your friends or family ever been turned back at borders, what happened to them?
Not from the US, but from European states, yes—one of them was severely beaten by police in eastern Europe and hospitalized.
How are you typically treated by border guards coming in and out of the United States?
It is an impersonal, bureaucratic exercise in distrust. The dreaded SSSS is stamped on my boarding pass and my hand luggage is searched again at the departure gate, I have to take off my shoes and be frisked again, there is no answer given when I ask the border agents why, just that I should ask the TSA when I land. Traveling within the US and out from there causes me no problems so by the time I land I just want to get on with my trip, and do not ask any questions. I presume it’s my name, where I was born, how I look, but it’s very frustrating to be constantly treated with suspicion, whether the danger is terrorism, drug smuggling, ebola, you become the site of other people’s fears. It’s almost funny the number of threats people see as I pass but it means I can be treated as guilty when I have done nothing wrong, my own identity—beliefs, experiences, qualities—do not matter. It’s not just the US either, for Somalis being Black, Muslim and from a notorious “war zone” creates real difficulties in many countries, from Europe to the Middle East to Africa.
Did the United States represent any kind of beacon to you, and if not, do you think the world has a beacon for freedom and human rights—if it doesn’t, where does that leave us?
No, it doesn’t and I can’t think of anywhere that is a beacon for freedom and human rights. There are some places that really do not have any pretense of caring about either, but the vast majority of countries seem to espouse freedom and equality while not quite living up to those ideals.
Feature image: Sabreen Hussain