Lit & Found: ‘Taming the Immigrant, Musings of a Writer in Exile’

For those who might have missed it, The Markaz Review has published an essay by Ahmed Naji that is, like so much of Naji’s work, by turns illuminating and darkly funny. “Taming the Immigrant: Musings of a Writer in Exile” was ably translated by Rana Asfour.

It begins with an exploration of fears that hounded him as a person and an artist in Egypt, and then shifts to his life as an artist in the US:

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.

Read the whole piece at the Markaz Review.